Advocates Fighting to Extend Worker's Comp Protections for Retired Firefighters Diagnosed with Cancer

They risk their lives to protect our communities and now some are fighting for help to save their own lives.

Firefighter associations said there are mountains of research linking their job to a broad range of cancers. But many workers comp providers only cover a small portion of that list.

The problem is even worse for retirees. It can take years from when a firefighter is exposed to a dangerous chemical for a cancer diagnosis to surface, but under Texas law retirees are cut off from any line-of-duty benefits. Now there’s a fight to change that and protect the protectors.

"You're part of that family forever," said retired Arlington firefighter Norm Phillips.

It comes with an inheritance of tradition, deep connections and shared battles. For Phillips, that includes a shared disease.

"You never want to hear that word. You never want to hear cancer," Phillips said.

He’s part of the growing ranks of firefighters diagnosed with cancer, as mounting evidence shows the link between what they breathe and absorb on scene, with their future risk for the disease.

"One of the risks that we didn't really know we were getting into," said Phillips.

In his case, it didn't catch up with him until he'd already hung up his hat. Phillips’ prostate cancer diagnosis came two years after he retired from the Arlington Fire Department.

"I ended up on the wrong side," he said.

That’s because in Texas when a firefighter gets cancer that's known to be associated with heat, smoke, radiation or a carcinogen, it's "presumed" to be caused by the job. But unlike 20 other states, that protection ends as soon as the firefighter retires.

Gary Lee landed on the right side of the invisible line. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer two years before retiring from the Fort Worth Fire Department.

"I never had any symptoms to speak of, I just felt tired all the time," Lee said.

He didn't connect his disease to his 34 years of service, until he came across an article about a year after he retired.

"The more I read, the more I thought maybe that's what was going on with me,” said Lee. “There was no cancer in my family. I'm a non smoker."

So he applied for worker's comp benefits and, after a lengthy battle, he won, earning back pay for all the time he'd missed while he was sick.

"From filling out the on-duty injury all the way through, I felt like that they were accusing me of being a liar. That I wanted something for nothing," said Lee.

Lee is one of the first firefighters in Texas to be awarded worker's comp for cancer after retirement but he only had a chance because his diagnosis came before he left the job.

"That's what I want to see change," said Curtis Dunn, vice president of the National Firefighter Cancer Support Network and district vice president of the Texas State Association of Firefighters.

"You fought fire for 30-plus years, 25-plus years,” Dunn said. “You put your life on the line every day and you inhaled smoke and you absorbed smoke and now we're saying because you've been retired five years we can't help you with the worker's comp?"

Now the firefighters association is taking its fight to the state capital. They've hired a lobbyist to push the legislature for stronger worker's comp protections.

"We're still at about a 98 percent denial rate for all cancer claims, until we appeal it," said Dunn.

They’re also fighting for an extended buffer to keep covering firefighters for five years after they retire, something six other states already allow.

"Why five years? Well it's a good start," said Dunn.

It would be enough for Phillips, a chance to be repaid roughly $5,000 in out-of-pocket medical costs. He doesn't expect compensation, but acknowledgment of his sacrifice?

"It would mean something to me and somebody that ends up not making it through cancer after the fact, that their family gets taken care of. That's a huge deal," Phillips said.

Especially because his firefighting family tree is growing. His daughter just joined the Dallas Fire Department.

"Matter of fact, she just got her station assignment today," Phillips said proudly.

It’s another life devoted to the fire service, accepting the dangers that come with it.

"I would do it again," said Phillips.

And hoping someone will have their back.

"Just take care of them," Phillips said.

Phillips and Lee are both doing well. They both had surgery to remove their cancer and neither needed chemo or radiation afterward. Both have many friends who went through more lengthy and expensive battles with cancer and sadly many did not survive.

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