Congress may try again to create a firefighter cancer registry

4:35 a.m. MDT Oct. 20, 2021

Pine Gulch Fire Colorado
Firefighters on Pine Gulch Fire during night shift, August 17, 2020. InciWeb.

A bill soon to be introduced in the House of Representatives, the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act, would accomplish several things to improve the pay and other working conditions of federal wildland firefighters. We covered that in another article.

One of the provisions in that legislation, the creation of a “Federal Wildland Firefighter Cancer and Cardiovascular Disease Database”, is interesting. About three years ago the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act of 2018 which passed July 7, 2018, required that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), an agency within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), establish a Firefighter Cancer Registry. The goal was to better understand the link between workplace exposures and cancer among firefighters. NIOSH has been piddling around with this for four years, led by Kenny Fent, accomplishing very little.

Kudos to the legislators who will attempt to get it done another way, after apparently giving up on the NIOSH Firefighter Cancer Registry.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

9 thoughts on “Congress may try again to create a firefighter cancer registry”

  1. I developed NHL at 37 years old. After 16 years of active fire with the USFS. I had numerous rounds of chemo that failed and had to have a stem cell transplant from an unrelated donor. I have issues with graft vs host disease two years later. I still see my medical team once a month. You know what the FS did for me? Let me burn all my sick leave. You know what I learned through the Fire Fighter Cancer Association???? Every single Fire Fighter in the Nation who develops cancer is 100% compensated for their medical bills and from time missed at work. Other agencies not only protect their employees, they educate them on the dangers of cancer and fire.

  2. Just a Patrol, sorry to hear that. I was wondering, what region were you in? Because, Region 3 fired a lot of people who had cancer. Their excuss was, we don’t have the money to pay for their treatment. So, I’m curious if it’s a regional thing or if it is a position thing or they only help those they like. I’m just trying to figure out why some people in the FS get help and others get fired.

  3. I am in R5. None of my treatment was paid for by the agency. I was not fired, however I got sick during an interesting time. If covid hadn’t become a real issue I may have been let go. I burned about 1,100 hours of my sick leave going to my chemo treatments. Initially everyone was on paid leave due to covid, which I benefited for about 2 weeks. Then during my time in the hospital for my stem cell transplant I was taken off the paid leave and put back on SL, because I was not available to work. Even though they were not letting anyone GO TO WORK. Once my ONC agreed to let me telework, because of covid and my weakened state I was granted the opportunity to work from home for 9 months. Now I am back in the field. But with major aches and pains. But better than staying home. I learned through a mentor program, having other fire fighters, city and county to help counsel me during this rough time, that their agencies paid for everything. Their medical and time missed from work.

  4. Just a Patrol, Region 5? CA! I’ve heard a lot of stories from there. I didn’t want to mention this earlier, but my mom died from cancer. I took care of her…it was a very difficult time. And a friend of mine just passed from breast cancer. She use to work for the FS. So, I’m literally holding back the tears. As she would say, Happy Thoughts! I’m a survivor of cancer. I’ve had it 3 times and each time I just make them cut it out. The last time they wanted me to go through chemo and I told them no, cut it out. And the dr said you could die. I was like I’m a firefighter I could die in a fire. Anyway, now I have no idea if it’s back, because I was fired from the FS, so I have no health insurance, blah, blah, blah… that’s why I’m so sensitive to these laws…the intent of the law is one thing, but the application is another. Plus, I’ve lost all trust in the FS. Anyway, sorry, I rambled on. I’m also sorry the FS made you use your sick leave (I know that can affect your retirement) and I hope you get to feeling better.

  5. I’m so sorry to hear this. Cancer is a traumatic thing to go through and it sounds like you have experienced a great deal of it. Sorry for your losses. I reached out to the Fire Fighter Cancer Association and was assigned a mentor. Just someone to help with counseling and finding resources and whatnot. The mentors are all fire fighters who’ve had cancer. They told me that their agencies covered all the expenses. For many people who I talked to. I am just so shocked that we do not get the same type of treatment. I know a hotshot who caught valley fever. He was a hot shot for years and cut line and mopped up several times in KNOWN area’s to have reported valley fever and the Forest Service denied him any compensation. Said there was no proof he caught it at work.

  6. Just a Patrol, I’m glad you have a mentor. That sounds like a good program. Yeah, I don’t understand why the Forest Service doesn’t support all their employees when they get cancer. In Region 3, some people were given time off and openly supported, while others were fired. My friend, I was talking about earlier was fired and then ended up on welfare while others where allowed early retirement. My advise to those who have cancer is not to tell anyone and look for another job or retire if you can. I also give that advise to those who have been sexually harassed/assaulted, raped, women who are pregnant, and anyone with a mental illness, because the Forest Service is not a safe place. Oh, and be careful what you say to EAP it can be reported back to the FS. I learned that the hard way. (I know. I sound paranoid. I wasn’t always like this, until I worked with the FS.) If they like you, they’ll keep you around, but if they don’t like you, they’ll use any excuse to fire you…any excuse to save them money. Oh, and I totally believe that the hotshot got valley fever, because s/he worked for the Forest Service. It’s like the VA not covering vets for health issues from burn pits. The FS knows that wildfires cause cancer. Sorry, again for being so dark. TTYL

  7. This is so tragic and unfair! My brother who was Federal firefighter, 59 years old and worked at Hunters Point in SF and Concord Naval Weapons Station, also at Beale Air Force base, passed away on September 30, 2021. Not a drinker or smoker, lived a clean and healthy lifestyle. He had Synovial Sarcoma. Not genetic, so presumably got it from exposure to something. So many firefighters have gotten cancer, something must be done.

  8. Laurie Ex, I am so sorry for your loss. My mom died in 2014 and my brother died last year. So, I understand. You mentioned Hunters Point and Concord Naval Weapons Station, do you know if he was exposed to perchloroethylene (PERC), Chrome-6, or JP-8? You don’t have to answer that question on this blog, but you might want to look into the different chemicals he was exposed to, because many of the chemicals that firefighter are exposed to cause cancer. I’m an Air Quality Specialist (for 27 years) and I worked at the TCEQ, NPS, FS, Air Force, and Army and I when I worked on my Master’s I wrote about Hunters Point. The paper is now classified, but you could find out the chemicals by requesting the information from the Navy or the state. The Navy has to do a Emissions Inventory (EI) every year and this is where you would find out the type and amount of chemicals that the base uses. In some states the military has to submit an EI report to the State (DEQ), so it might be easier to get the information from the State. Again, I’m so sorry. I’m not sure if this helps. I spent the last year investigating my brother’s death and I think the process helped me grieve, but excepting his death is still very hard. (There are good days and bad days!) My only advice, try to hold on to the good memories. Let the bad ones fall away. Again, I’m so sorry. I don’t want you to feel alone, because you’re not alone.

  9. NIOSH’s inability to stand up the National Firefighter Registry is a symptom of incompetence with the NIOSH Office of the Director, specifically the Associate Director of IT and Informatics Services. I would suggest a link to his information would be more helpful than the one you provided. Further investigation would show that a number of NIOSH IT projects have been poorly managed. Here’s just one other example:

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