“I'm Not Giving Up”: Firefighters Battling Cancer & Worker's Comp Denials

This past weekend, October 7-8, was National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend. Hundreds gathered in Maryland to honor and remember fallen firefighters who gave their lives protecting us.

Many of them didn't die fighting flames, but fighting cancer. It's an invisible danger caused by exposure to smoke, soot and chemicals, and beating cancer is not their only fight.

When firefighters get sick, they can't focus solely on saving their own lives because they're having to prove their disease is caused by their job.

"This is our wall," Patrick Lindsey said, pointing to a wall of framed photos of his wife and children. "They're perfect kids."

Those pictures represent what makes a house a home. Family. The ones you want to keep safe.

"This is why we do what we do," Lindsey said.

What he does, is protect the homes and families of strangers. As a captain with the Grapevine Fire Department, he'll risk his life to save yours.

"That's what we live for. That was a calling, for me, by God," Captain Lindsey said. "I raised my hand. I do everything I can to help my community."

But now he's fighting for his own life.

"I started getting short of breath, it started making it more difficult," Captain Lindsey said.

He was diagnosed in January with multiple myeloma.

"It's a very rare cancer,” Captain Lindsey said. “There's no genetic form. My type of cancer only comes from being exposed to something."

In 28 years of fighting fires, he's been exposed to a lot.

The list of fallen firefighters keeps growing, just as emerging research shows that what they breathe and absorb on every fire scene raises their risk for developing cancer.

The International Association of Firefighters now says 60% of line-of-duty deaths are not from flames or falls, but from cancer.

"I've never been afraid of a fight," Captain Lindsey said.

But he never expected he'd have to fight for the benefits he thought he'd earned.

"I filed with workers comp and I was denied," Lindsey said. "It basically felt like they were calling me a liar."

He's now appealing, with a secret weapon in his corner: Fort Worth Fire Captain Robert Webb. He's a three-year survivor of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, now devoted to helping fellow firefighters navigate the worker's comp process.

"If they're not written a certain way, they can be denied," he said to a roomful of EMS Chiefs from fire departments all over the state.

"How many people in the class have had someone in their department with cancer?" he asked the group and watched as nearly every hand raised. "How many have had somebody die from cancer in their department?"

Several more hands went up – every hand raised representing a hero lost. Like Duncanville Fire Captain Tim Riffe.

"I miss him every day,” said Duncanville Fire EMS Division Chief Mike Ryan. “Every day. He was like a brother."

Captain Riffe died at 48, otherwise the picture of health.

"We knew it was connected to fighting fire,” Division Chief Ryan said. “We knew that. But you couldn't get anybody to listen to you."

Captain Webb is listening – and he's heard the story too many times.

"Regardless of the information that's supplied, you're going to be denied," Captain Webb said.

It's not supposed to work like that. Under Texas law, when a firefighter gets cancer it's "presumed" to be caused by on-the-job exposure, unless proven otherwise.

"I just thought that if something happens to me, somebody's going to have my back," Captain Webb said.

When that didn't happen, he got mad.

"They lit the fire under me. Because it wasn't just me."

And he started reading. He won his workman's comp appeal, using studies from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), published in the IARC Monographs.

"Each cancer has to be tied to a product of combustion," Captain Webb said, flipping through a list of potentially cancer-causing agents. "This is during structure fires. This is during overhaul. This is in diesel exhaust."

He does the same thing now for firefighters across Texas, handing out packets of research on which chemicals cause what cancer, to help firefighters win their appeals.

"Now I've got 16 cancers that I have packets built for," Captain Webb said. "It's a mission to me."

So why are cases still being denied?

NBC5 asked Captain Lindsey’s worker's comp insurer, the Texas Municipal League Intergovernmental Risk Pool (TMLIRP), who told NBC5 in part:

“There is a legal issue that is pending in the courts right now over what that Monograph means. TMLIRP, insurance carriers and other self-insured cities believe it means that the IARC has determined that three types of cancers may be related to firefighting, and that these are the only three types of cancer currently entitled to the presumption.”

Captain Webb showed NBC5 the study that came from.

"Some cities have taken this sentence literally,” he said pointing out a paragraph in the IARC Monographs.

But he argues it's just one line in a mountain of research.

"I believe the information I've given people is iron-clad. I believe it’s very good information," Captain Webb said.

The TMLIRP won't talk on camera while a legal challenge is pending in court, but added that they "must make decisions based on the law rather than simply our concern for those who protect our citizens."

Not good enough for Captain Lindsey.

"I want somebody at workman's comp to stand up, look in the mirror and say what we're doing is wrong," he said. "Let's change it."

Before it's too late.

"I'm not afraid of dying," Captain Lindsey said. "But the hard part is knowing the pain that it'll cause on my wife and my kids."

"I wanna be a grandad one day,” he added. “Watch them grow up. Play with them, maybe teach them how to fish, play baseball."

And teach them how to fight.

"I'll get there," Captain Lindsey said. "It's a fight, I'll win."

Captain Lindsey recently had a stem cell transplant. He's doing well but will be off work for up to six months, that's a lot of time that worker's comp could help cover.

His medical bills are covered by insurance but proving that line-of-duty injury is important, especially because if the worst happens, it ensures a firefighter's family will be taken care of.

Contact Us