ELKHART — Firefighters are at greater risk than most of getting cancer. A new Elkhart Fire Department policy would make it easier to document how the firefighters' line of work may have contributed to them becoming sick.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, firefighters are 14% more likely to die from cancer than the rest of the population.
"And our guys are aware of that. We do our job knowing that," Fire Chief Steve Kamp said on Tuesday.
Three firefighters at the department are suffering from cancer, he said. But proving the disease is related to their duties has proven difficult. One firefighter who has been with the department for 20 years spent six months pulling documents that could show that his work caused his cancer. He still has another seven years of documents to go, according to Kamp.
He was speaking to members of the city's Board of Public Safety, encouraging them to approve a policy that means Elkhart firefighters are required to track their exposure to hazards that could cause cancer.
They will track exposure on a phone or tablet, filling out incident details such as what hazardous materials were present and how long they were exposed. That information will go to a spreadsheet that can be accessed by the firefighter or their family if it is ever needed. That should make it easier to get compensation for themselves or their families.
Until now, firefighters have had the option to fill out a similar form, but they were not required to do so. Kamp said only two of his employees have been filling out the form.
With the new policy, which was approved by the board, the officer in charge of a crew will be responsible for making sure every firefighter fills out the form. The Fire Department responds to about 200 fires each year, and filling out the form takes two to five minutes, according to Kamp.
"The guys are all on board with this," he said.
That was seconded by Dustin Flagg, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 338.
"I think it's a very good idea," he said.
New firefighters tend to think a lot about what they are exposed to, Flagg said. But once they grow used to it, it can feel less important to fill out forms like this one if it isn't required.
"It becomes routine," he said. "This is going to be a way to help us not become complacent in documenting those exposures."
And having to take a few minutes to fill out the information is not a concern for the firefighters.
"It's for our best interest, honestly, so even if it takes a few extra minutes to document what the exposure was, in the long run, it's a few extra minutes that are going to benefit us all," he said.
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