Merriweather Drive, Firefighter (copy)

A handful of fire departments responded to a structure fire along Merriweather Drive in Aiken County in January 2020. Two new bills in the S.C. legislature aim to create new policies and benefits for firefighters diagnosed with cancer from potential exposure to cancer-causing agents while serving in the line of duty. 

A new bill has been introduced in the South Carolina legislature that would create new a supplemental insurance policy for some firefighters diagnosed with cancer.

Cancer is the leading cause of deaths in career firefighters, according to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.

While most fire departments provide cancer health care benefits to their employees, some firefighters believe the Firefighter Cancer Health Care Benefit Plan currently being discussed in the S.C. legislature would be a big step forward in improving their coverage.

"The benefits to this one are a lot better than what the locals can offer," said Capt. Brian Brazier, who works in the Aiken Department of Public Safety fire division. "With as many firefighters as (the state) is looking to cover, the cost of this is going to be pretty high, but the money is there to do it. I feel like we need to support the fire services in the state."

The new bill, if approved, would create a supplemental insurance policy for some firefighters diagnosed with cancer and provide death benefits upon cancer-related deaths, among other things. It would also require cancer deaths for those who qualify for the new policies to be reported as line-of-duty deaths.

Firefighters are 14% more likely to die of cancer than then general U.S. population and 9% more likely to be diagnosed with cancer, according to the International Association of Firefighters. Cancer caused 61% of career firefighter deaths between 2002-2016. 

That elevated cancer risk is believed to be caused by exposure to carcinogens and toxins released from burning materials when structures go up in flames. 

Brazier, who has served with ADPS for 36 years, said former officers in the department have been diagnosed with, and died from, cancer – though he cannot attribute the cause to exposure to cancer-causing agents while firefighting with absolute certainty. 

"Is there a possibility that being in the fire service contributed to them getting cancer? Absolutely," Brazier said. 

Under the new bill, firefighters would be reimbursed up to $12,000 annually for any out-of-pocket medical expenses, such as copayments or deductibles. Firefighters would be provided with a $20,000 benefit upon cancer diagnosis and may qualify for additional benefits upon a 12-month remission or separate diagnosis.

Firefighters who die from cancer, or circumstances related to cancer treatment, will be counted as a line-of-duty death and a $75,000 death benefit will be paid out to the firefighter's beneficiary.

Firefighters would have to be with a S.C. Fire Department for at least five continuous years and diagnosed with cancer within the last 10 years of active service to qualify for these benefits.

S.C. Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, signed on to cosponsor the bill last week.

"It is important to support the firefighters that we all depend on when a fire occurs," Young said. "This bill proposes to use an existing revenue stream to address a longstanding health issue for our firefighters."

Types of cancer covered under the bill would include the following affected areas and systems:

• Central/Peripheral Nervous System.

• Oropharyngeal.

• Respiratory Tract.

• Gastrointestinal Tract.

• Hepatobiliary.

• Solid Organ/Endocrine.

• Genitourinary/Male Reproductive.

• GYN.

• Skin/Soft Tissue/Breast.

• Bone/Blood.

Brazier said he wholeheartedly supports the new legislation as a member of the fire service.

"This is the kind of information we're trying to get out and get people to contact their senators and representatives and support their fire troops, not just in Aiken but throughout the state," Brazier said. "It's something thing that will affect every department in the state."

Aiken City Government Reporter Shiann Sivell contributed to this article. 

Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.