It’s time to track our fireground exposures

Keeping a personal log or using an exposure tracker app could be the key to assuring cancer benefits

If you follow fire service news, you may recall that, across the country, there are firefighters whose occupational cancer claims have been denied:

Claims are being denied for a variety of reasons, but the one that sticks out is denial based on insufficient proof of exposure to carcinogens. Depending on how an agency’s workers’ compensation program is administered, the denial could come from an insurer, a third-party administrator or city/county administrative personnel.

"Keeping personal records of each exposure is an essential part of your work," writes Vatter. (Photo/Getty Images)

You may be thinking to yourself, “I have 12 years on the job and have been to hundreds of fires and thousands of incidents so that should be enough.” Unfortunately, the answer is a confusing yes and no. And it is going to be dependent on exactly how the legislation is written and the interpretation of the claim’s person.

“Rebuttable presumption” calls for logging exposures

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) maintains a list of the states and Canadian provinces that have presumptive cancer legislation. At the time of this writing, 49 states and 12 provinces have some form of presumptive cancer legislation on the books. Only Delaware and Quebec fail to provide any form of presumptive cancer legislation.

In many cases, the legislation provides that the presumption is rebuttable. What does this mean to average firefighter? A rebuttable presumption means that given sufficient, credible evidence to the contrary, your claim can be denied. In other words, your proof must be better than their proof for your claim to survive. And this is where the “12 years on the job” statement will fall flat. Do you have proof that you responded to hundreds of fires? And what job did you perform at those fires?

Incident reports and company journal entries can be helpful. But can you remember the date and address of every incident you ever responded to? Unless it is a particularly memorable call, it is unlikely that you will be able to recall most of the incidents.

Fortunately, there are ways to protect yourself and your family. Keep a personal log, journal or diary, or use an exposure report for every incident. It does not need to be fancy. Any hard-bound notebook will do, or you can use one of the exposure apps that are available such as the National Fire Operations Reporting System. You can also consider using both a notebook and an app. Remember, you are not writing a novel, but you need to include the date, time, incident number, address, your riding position and, most importantly, a brief description of what work you performed. For example: “I was assigned the nozzle on Engine 7. We were the first-arriving engine company, and I was the driver and operated the pump for the duration of the fire.”

Make your personal journal/app entries as soon as possible after the incident. You (and your attorney) will want to be able to say that those entries were made contemporaneously. In other words, you made the notes as soon as possible, not the week before you filed your claim. Additionally, keeping a personal record will help with obtaining official records, such as an NFIRS report, fire investigation report or police reports.

Ongoing research offers support

There is ongoing research examining carcinogens. In June 2022, the International Agency for Research on Cancer published a report that states, “Occupational exposure as a firefighter was classified as carcinogenic to humans based on sufficient evidence in humans.” How employers and insurers will react to this information is anyone’s guess.

The fire service should be grateful for this research, but we need to do our best to protect ourselves and loved ones. Keeping personal records of each exposure is an essential part of your work. You could decide to journal every call and event during your time in the fire service. And who knows, even if you never need it for a claim, you may have the basis of a best-seller.

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