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A Different Kind of Fire Part 2: Legislation to Create Firefighter Cancer Registry

May 16, 2017 08:37 AM

(ABC 6 News) -- They risk their lives protecting ours, now firefighters are asking the state to help protect theirs.

For the past year, ABC 6 News has been following this growing problem profiling members of the Albert Lea Fire Department who have been diagnosed with cancer.  Since our special report aired last November, there have been efforts at the state capitol for legislation inspired by members of our community.

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"I met firefighters from New York after 9-11 and I fell in love," said Brett Boss who signed up to be a firefighter with the Albert Lea Fire Department 13 years ago. 

What he didn't sign up for was the cancer he got while on the job.  "Firefighter safety is the most important because if we're not around, who is going to do our job? Because it's hard to get volunteers anymore," says Boss.

Boss was diagnosed with stage four Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, in 2014

In November, ABC 6 News profiled Boss along with two other firefighters from the department who were all diagnosed with cancer within months of each other.

"My first knowledge of this was when Brett Boss a young firefighter in our Albert Lea Department reached out to me," said Rep. Peggy Bennett (R-Albert Lea).

Bennett invited Boss and his colleagues to the capitol in December and has since introduced a bill gaining bipartisan support.

"This bill comes right from the heart because these are our neighbors, they are the men and women who put their lives on the line to protect our property, to protect our lives, and now their lives are in jeopardy from more than just the fire itself," Bennett said.

The measure would create a cancer registry for firefighters with hopes of finding what is causing a surge in cancer rates.   Although the Minnesota Department of Health does not currently track cancer cases among firefighters, it did recognize the possible need for it, writing in a statement, "This is one group, though, where we're fairly comfortable saying there probably is a link between their profession and a higher risk of developing cancer, even if we can't pinpoint the exact causes."

According to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, since 2002, 60 percent of active firefighter deaths have been due to cancer.  The report also says firefighters are two times more likely to develop testicular cancer and one and a half times more likely to develop multiple myeloma cancer compared to the general public.

In November, we spoke with Chris Parsons, President of the Minnesota Professional Firefighters.  "Fires are more dangerous, they burn faster, they burn hotter, they put more toxins into the air and firefighters are exposed, that's where we do our business."

"You'll smell the fire actually coming through your pores, it doesn't matter how many times you shower," said Parsons, who is also a captain with the St. Paul Fire Department.

He said a registry is needed to provide hard data for legislative action. His department now part of a nationwide Cancer Biomarker Study through 2020.      

"It's really hard to recruit and obviously if we have this danger that firefighters or young people say, 'hey I don't want to risk my life, I'm already risking it in the fire, but for cancer?'  That's huge, so I think for that reason, we really need to look at this and figure how we can protect firefighters," said Bennett.

"This is not a partisan issue for sure," said Sen. Dan Sparks (DFL - Austin).  "These guys, our men and women, are willing to go out and risk their lives every day for us, so when they come to ask for just a little bit from the state, that is the least we can do."

Sparks said he's throwing his full support behind this bill too as co-author of a companion bill in the Senate. 

The issue is also gaining traction on the federal level.  In February, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar was in the state advocating for the creation of a national firefighter cancer registry.  "Otherwise we're just closing our eyes and knowing that when they run into that building on fire that that's the immediate danger, but the long-term danger is they're going to get cancer."

"I think it's great to be a part of the change," said Boss, who is in remission.

However, he said the fear of his cancer returning is always on the back of his mind.

"Even though I went through a bad kind of cancer, but now I'm getting the awareness out to the local departments in our counties," he says. Hoping his brothers and sisters in uniform will never receive the terrible diagnosis and can continue to do what they love.

"It's a risky job, but for the reward and helping out others, it's a great feeling."

The bill did not move forward this year after being heard in the Health and Human Services Committee.  Bennett, who was the chief author, said she will not stop and plans to introduce new legislation next year that includes funding for extractors to help stations clean firefighter turnout gear.


Credits

Laura Lee

Copyright 2017 - KAAL-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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