Bill could provide support for firefighters lost to cancer
Even as Duluth and other cities heighten safety precautions, proposed federal legislation would recognize cancer as an on-the-job risk of firefighting, worthy of death benefits.
DULUTH — Of course, firefighting is an inherently dangerous profession, but even when crews safely leave a scene without any apparent injury, that doesn’t mean they’re no longer in harm’s way.
Duluth Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj said he regularly attends funerals of former firefighters where cancer is a recurring theme.
Small wonder, as cancer has emerged as the leading cause of death for firefighters.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and Kevin Cramer (R-North Dakota) have introduced federal legislation that would provide support for firefighters who contract debilitating cancer and the families they all too often leave behind.
“The fact that it has bipartisan support is encouraging,” Krizaj said. “It really shows that protecting and supporting firefighters and their families is important to everyone.”
Klobuchar said the bill she and Cramer are bringing forward was inspired by the story of St. Paul Fire Captain Michael Paidar, who was diagnosed with an aggressive form of acute myeloid leukemia at the age of 53 and died a little more than six months later in 2020, leaving a wife and two children behind.
The following year, his widow, Julie, working in concert with the International Association of Fire Fighters, successfully pushed to get the Minnesota Department of Public Safety for the first time to recognize occupational cancer as a condition that qualifies first responders to receive line-of-duty death benefits.
At a news conference this week, Paidar advocated for taking the same approach at the federal level, calling for Congress to pass the Honoring Our Fallen Heroes Act, not just in her husband’s memory but in recognition of the hundreds of other firefighters who have succumbed to cancer.
She recounted talking to members of other families that have experienced similar losses and said, “All of our firefighters shared a common DNA: They were selfless, they were dedicated, and they were devoted to helping others. Across this nation, firefighters are there for us without hesitation, and they’re there for us day or night, 24-7. They are there when we need them, and it is my hope and my ask that we are there for them and their families when they need us.”
Klobuchar said she wholeheartedly agrees.
“I see this as a way to honor the memory of Mike and the sacrifice of his family. Passing this bill… is the least we can do to show that we recognize their sacrifice,” she said, adding, “I’m not going to rest until this bill is signed into law.”
Klobuchar contends there’s no reason to treat deaths from cancer differently from an injury on the scene, which would be covered under the federal Public Safety Officer Benefits program.
“Firefighters can be exposed to hundreds of potential carcinogens when responding to fires,” she said. “It is only right that we treat cancer caused by on-the-job exposure the same way we treat other physical injuries.”
Cramer concurred, saying that it struck him as an obviously correct decision for lawmakers to extend the benefits to first responders who develop cancer.
“But while it seems like it should be easy, nothing ever is,” he said.
“We all have a tendency to take them for granted until we need them, and then we realize how heroic they are,” Cramer said.
IAFF General President Edward Kelly noted that firefighting has been identified as one of the greatest cancer risk factors by the International Agency on Cancer Research, a branch of the World Health Organization.
“There is no doubt that when we respond to a fire, the off-gassing of what’s burning is toxic and carcinogenic and is more and more so, as more of our daily society is infused by these chemicals,” he said, adding that the work environment has become increasingly hazardous.
Krizaj has been a firefighter for 29 years and said awareness of the cancer danger that comes with the job has grown considerably in recent years. He remembers back when self-contained breathing gear was not considered standard equipment and when wearing sooty gear was considered “kind of a badge of honor.”
Nowadays, all Duluth firefighters are supplied by the city with two sets of turnout gear, per a contract negotiated by IAFF Local 101, so that a clean set of protective clothing is available at all times. And each fire hall is equipped with a piece of specialized heavy-duty washing equipment called an extractor to facilitate the cleaning of turnout gear between calls.
Firefighters are provided with large wet wipes to remove soot and grime from their skin on the scene of a working fire and also have systems in place that allow them to securely stow gear away from personnel on the ride back to the station, as equipment off-gassing in a rig also can expose them to carcinogens.
Once back at the hall, firefighters coordinate to clean up more thoroughly in quick succession, as part of what Krizaj called the department’s “hour to shower” policy.
Despite all these precautions, there is no escaping the cancer risks firefighters face on the job as a result of burning materials, as well as the very gear they must wear. At present, fire-resistant turnout gear is required to contain chemicals known as PFAS, toxins linked to cancer and often referred to as “forever chemicals,” as they are extremely difficult to break down.
“The very gear designed to protect firefighters, to keep us safe, is killing us,” said Kelly recently, in a push for alternative gear options.
Krizaj hopes safe clothing that uses other materials will be developed soon. He noted that the current turnout gear not only poses a hazard to firefighter health but also is quite expensive, with a single set usually costing between $3,700 to $3,900. With 132 active firefighters in Duluth’s operations units, requiring two sets of turnout gear each, that equates to an expenditure of nearly $1 million, but worth every penny to keep staff as safe as possible, Krijaz added. He just wishes the gear itself were made of safer materials.