The union representing US firefighters is calling on the fire service, government, industry, and scientific community to unite in support of a broad strategy to combat fire fighter occupational cancer.
“All of us have lost friends to cancer – too many of them. Too many of our brothers and sisters gone far too soon. We need to do whatever it takes to end the scourge of cancer in the fire service,” International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) General President Edward Kelly said at the 2023 US Fire Administrator’s Summit on Fire Prevention and Control.
Urging that time is of the essence, Kelly said a comprehensive fire fighter cancer prevention strategy is needed, one that invests in critical research programs, prioritizing the most dangerous cancer risks for fire fighters. Fighting occupational cancer must include cancer screenings for fire fighters, education, and training to help better understand increased risk, he said.
Kelly said national cancer presumption coverage should be available for all fire fighters diagnosed with cancer. Currently, U.S. states and Canadian provinces have different forms of presumption coverage. for the IAFF also supports the expansion of the Public Safety Officer Benefit (PSOB) Program to cover line-of-duty deaths and permanent disabilities due to occupational cancer.
“As fire fighters, we take risks; we knew that when we came on the job. We accept that we may die trying to save the lives of others. All we ask for in return is that you help us minimize the risk of dying needlessly and help us do our job as safely as possible,” Kelly said.
Hundreds of members of the fire service joined appointed and elected officials and academics for the daylong USFA Summit, held at the National Emergency Training Summit in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
President Joe Biden addressed attendees through a live feed. He praised fire fighters as “the heart of the community” and noted that too often “people don’t appreciate you until they need you.”
Biden said the Administration is doing everything possible to fund the fire service and make sure fire fighters have what they need to stay safe on the job. The President cited numerous ways his administration has supported the fire service, including:
- $350 billion included in the American Rescue Plan for first responders.
- 2023 budget request for $320 million in federal grants for new hires and equipment.
- Support for presumptive cancer legislation and legislation to address toxic chemicals, including PFAS.
- Support for the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act, helping federal fire fighters access workers’ compensation; the Protecting America’s First Responders Act, which extends PSOB benefits; and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which supports wildland firefighting.
While noting progress is being made, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said more resources are needed to address the emerging challenges fire fighters confront, including more destructive wildfires, risks from lithium battery fires, mental health issues, and the urgent need to recruit and retain fire fighters.
“The emergencies to which a fire fighter responds are as varied as life itself. The character of the fire fighter who responds, however, is constant: courageous, devoted to duty, committed to community, willing to sacrifice,” said Mayorkas.
While the IAFF continues to fight for federal resources to combat occupational cancer, IAFF Chief of Field Services Patrick Morrison urged fire service leaders to do more. Saying, “We must advocate for ourselves,” Morrison noted that early cancer screenings can dramatically increase survival rates. He also urged all in attendance to encourage fire fighters to enroll in the National Firefighter Registry for Cancer, which will help improve the science behind fire fighter occupational cancer over time.