Congress Takes Action to Address Cancer in the Fire Service

In my presentations, I often take humorous jabs at Congress for its legislative achievements – or lack thereof – and the 115th Congress is no exception. To date, over 15,500 measures have been introduced since this Congress convened in January 2017 and only 194 measures have been signed into law.  


Granted, a good majority of these measures stand as good a chance at passage as the Washington Redskins have at winning the next Super Bowl.  But it does illustrate the difficulties in getting legislation approved in today’s political climate.  Partisan differences have created a chasm on Capitol Hill – one that impedes members from our two political parties from working together in the spirit of bipartisanship to address critical issues that require federal action.

Fortunately, the partisan acrimony we are witnessing on so many issues has not imperiled the work of the fire service organizations. To the contrary, many important pieces of fire service legislation have been approved this session – and on a bipartisan basis no less. The most recent is the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act of 2018.

Cancer in the fire service is commanding national attention, and for good reason. Various studies have concluded that firefighters are more exposed to certain types of cancer than the general population, including the NIOSH Firefighter Study (2013), Nordic Firefighter Study (2014) and Australian Firefighter Study (2014). Organizations at the local, state and national levels recognize the enormous threat of cancer to our firefighters and are developing programs for their members that address education and prevention, treatment and family counseling. But despite all the attention being given to cancer as an occupational disease, we still need specific important data – data that will help researchers and epidemiologists in their work to treat our firefighters diagnosed with cancer.

The Firefighter Cancer Registry Act was introduced in the House by Congressman Chris Collins, a Republican from New York, and Congressman Bill Pascrell, a Democrat from New Jersey and co-Chair of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus. On the Senate side, the measure was introduced by Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, and Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska.  Four federal legislators: two Democrats and two Republicans from both the House and Senate. 

The legislation will establish the first national cancer registry specifically for firefighters. Even with the many studies that have been conducted throughout the years on firefighter occupational cancer, there’s more we need to learn. Many studies have been limited by relatively small sample sizes and an under-representation of certain demographic groups, including women and minorities. The new registry will address these issues. Moreover, it will gather data on other key areas, such as status — career, volunteer, or paid-on-call — years in the fire service and number of emergency incidents attended. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention will manage the program and consult with non-federal experts (career and volunteer firefighters, national fire service organizations, Epidemiologists, clinicians and other public health experts) in implementing the registry.

When the House and Senate voted on this measure, it was approved unanimously in both chambers. Why? Because the national fire service organizations spent considerable time and effort educating members about the importance of this legislation. For the past year, their government affairs representatives were meeting with members of Congress and their staff, providing detailed information about what we know and don’t know about cancer in the fire service and why the legislation was so vital to enhancing our knowledge and understanding. 

CFSI extends its thanks to the four sponsors of this legislation and to the many organizations and individuals involved in this positive legislative outcome. Together, we have helped the fire service take another step forward in protecting our own against a serious threat. 

Bill Webb has served as Executive Director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute since 1995. CFSI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy institute designed to enhance congressional awareness about the concerns and needs of the fire and emergency services. As Executive Director, he works closely with members of Congress and fire service leaders to sustain support on Capitol Hill for programs and legislation that benefit our nation’s fire and emergency services. Before joining CFSI, Webb worked for the Firefighter Combat Challenge as the project manager for the competition. He currently serves as Vice Chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and is an honorary member of the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department, the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters’ Association and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 36.

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