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Bill to provide workers comp for firefighter cancer diagnoses fails

Firefighting is undeniably a dangerous profession, though how to manage the longer-term effects are still being debated by lawmakers. Namely, what should be done about potential links between the career and cancer.

Studies from the International Agency for Research on Cancer have described occupational exposure as a firefighter to be “carcinogenic.” Further, the Firefighter Cancer Support Network estimates the profession suffers from cancer at a rate nine percent above than the general public with a 14 percent higher cancer fatality rate.

Those studies informed Senate Bill 114, which would create the presumption of workers compensation for occupational cancer for firefighters. It was introduced by Rapid City Republican David Johnson.

Rapid City Fire Department chief Brian Povandra testified in support of the proposal.

“Your state’s firefighters have been and continue to take steps to protect themselves, we are not just expecting this to be our fallback coverage," Povandra said. "Many new and remodeled stations are being completed with cold, warm and hot zones in order to minimize exposure to carcinogens.”

Federal recommendations call for each firefighter to have two sets of personal protective equipment, a standard Povandra says is difficult to meet for volunteer departments.

SB 114 sought to bypass the state’s work compensation advisory board, going directly to lawmakers. Supporters argue this is an issue in need of an immediate legislative solution, but Watertown Republican Sen. Lee Schoenbeck said that piece of the process is essential to receive his vote.

“Every time a bill comes, if they don’t come to the work comp advisory board like they should to make sure it’s fair and proper, it should die," Schoenbeck said. "It’s not the job of the board to go find people that have bills. Everybody for 30 years has known that your job is to go to the work comp advisory board and see what they’re going to say. If you want to have good legislation, follow the process.”

While some committee members criticized the lack of more collective health care policy, the bill was defeated on a 7-2 vote.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture