Skip to Content

Firefighters battle for occupational cancer benefits


Click here for updates on this story

    ASHEVILLE, North Carolina (WLOS) — Cancer caused 66-percent of career firefighter line of duty deaths nationwide between 2002 and 2019 according to data from the International Association of Fire Fighters.

The reason why is the focus of News 13’s Deadlier than Fire series and documentary following several firefighters through their cancer battle.

At least 257 North Carolina firefighters from 77 departments have been diagnosed with cancer over the last decade according to a 2020 Health and Safety Survey done by the North Carolina Association of Fire Chiefs. Right now, the biggest battle is a lack of data and how to account for whether the job is putting firefighters at a greater risk. That’s slowly changing as states including North Carolina recognize collecting data concerning cancer cases among firefighters and conducting better research are the only way to better understand what appear to be increasing cases.

North Carolina is one of two states without occupational cancer benefits for firefighters. That’s why firefighters are demanding action from lawmakers after more than a decade of inaction.

News 13 sat down with firefighters and lawmakers trying to reconcile their battle for better benefits during a fight for their lives.

For firefighters, failure has catastrophic consequences.

They avoid it, by staying prepared, which includes testing equipment, from neighborhood fire hydrants to the hoses on their trucks.

It gives Concord Fire Captain Steven Madorin, Engineer Joe Munday and Lieutenant Matt Sellers confidence in those tools, when it’s time to go to work and when the community is counting on them.

“Being there, to see people on their worst day. To try to help them and try and turn it around to make it a better day for them has always been very rewarding for me,” said Lt. Mall Sellers, at Concord Fire Station 5.

Sellers never imagined the job would risk his life or 20 of his fellow Concord firefighters lives in any way but fighting fires.

“I never had a mass,” explained Sellers. “They weren’t real sure how to treat the type of cancer I did have so they were just throwing everything they had at it.”

It was a diagnosis that had Sellers leaning on fellow firefighters.

“Not letting you be alone to sit there and stew over things,” said Sellers. According to the veteran firefighter, his doctors had tough words that could have had anyone questioning their future. “They told me I had about a 30-percent survival rate that what was really tough,” said Sellers.

In 2011, the rare T-cell Lymphoma hospitalized Sellers every third week for chemo, later forcing a leave of absence from the job he loved, and creating a hardship for his family. He remembers the tough conversation he had with his city employer.

“You’re on long-term disability now, we’re not going to consider you an employee and this was right before I was getting ready to go in for my bone marrow transplant,” said Sellers.

“It puts a lot of pressure on your whole family. That’s money you’re not bringing in, but you’re still spending on hospital bills, and other stuff so it gets very tight,” said Sellers.

In North Carolina, without presumptive cancer legislation to get worker’s comp. You have to prove which fire caused your cancer. That’s nearly impossible. Out of options in 2016 Sellers took medical retirement.

“I didn’t want to, but I did,” said Sellers.

That’s where firefighters say North Carolina has failed Sellers and other firefighters diagnosed with cancer at increasing rates. It’s one of the last states without a comprehensive line of duty cancer coverage. Delaware is the other.

“Right now, the state covers firefighters and provides a line of duty death benefit because they say you died doing your job, so why are they not covering us when we get sick?” asked Scott Mullins, Asheville Firefighter and Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics of North Carolina President, who has spent years lobbying for changes in Raleigh.

Over the last 12 years, lawmakers have failed to expand occupational cancer coverage for firefighters. The latest defeated bill in the 2019-2020 legislative session, House Bill 520, which included presumptive cancer workers compensation benefits stalled in the NC Senate. News 13 took the issue to western North Carolina Senator Chuck Edwards.

“Why do you think it (House Bill 520) had sat in the legislature from 2019 and not moved out of the Senate committee,” News 13 asked Edwards. “Well in 2019 we came to a standstill essentially over the budget and a lot of time has been the case some of the firefighter protections because there is or because there appropriations necessary they got stalled in the budget process,” explained Edwards.

“What science has shown is that they’re (firefighters) much more likely to get cancer and its because they’re around all these carcinogens all the time, they’re around burning materials, their turnout gear can seep into their pores because they’re sweating underneath it and they’re getting cancer at higher rates because of that,” said Representative Destin Hall (R)-Caldwell, NC.

Hall co-sponsored the Firefighters Fighting Cancer Act of 2021, or House Bill 535, which eliminates the need for workers’ compensation by creating a cancer benefit plan or insurance. The plan would cost the state on average, $130 per firefighter, to cover cancer starting in 2022. Money to cover the cost is proposed to come out of the fire tax currently paid which may mean a slight increase in the tax which could amount to dollars a year.

“It makes sure that when they get that diagnosis, it’s not going to mean bankruptcy for them,” said Hall of HB 535.

House Bill 535 proposes to give firefighters receiving a cancer diagnosis after 2022, a lump sum benefit paid upfront, disability coverage if they can’t work during treatment, and annual medical reimbursements to cover out-of-pocket costs for prescriptions or co-pays or other medical needs relating to their cancer. Senate Bill 472 is similar but not as extensive.

“What my hope is that the House will pass their version, the Senate will pass their version and we’ll end up in a conference in some regard to work out the difference and come up with a bill that’s better than either of the bills at this time,” said Senator Edwards.

Firefighters are encouraged but pushing for more data. In Sellers’ rookie class three of ten had received a cancer diagnosis. North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey’s voluntary cancer registry has already identified 50 cancer cases from 15 North Carolina fire departments including 7 cases in Asheville and 21 in Concord.

“The majority of fire departments and firefighters are willing to report they want to have those numbers recorded because they know down the road it will help them to get the benefits they deserve,” said Commissioner Causey.

Dr. Laura Fish of Duke Cancer Institute’s Behavioral Health and Survey Research is surveying a thousand firefighters in the Triad, to collect data on firefighter cancer exposures.

“We’re getting a baseline on these behaviors and then we can look at it by demographic characteristics. It’s completely confidential the data will be shared in the aggregate with fire departments that firefighters come from but no names would ever be associated with the data,” said Dr. Fish.

In 2016, Sellers’ doctor gave him the news he’d hope for but never expected. Sellers was told he could suit up again.

“Exhilarating, it was just, probably the best news I’d heard in a long time since my doctor said everything looks great on your PET scan, everything was clear, no cancer,” said Sellers, thinking back to hearing the news. He’s rejoined the Concord Fire Department. Sellers was an Engineer when he retired. When he returned in 2017 he had to come back as a firefighter, but within a short period was promoted back to Engineer. In 2020, he was promoted to Lieutenant, his current rank. Sellers is grateful to the city of Concord and the Fire Department’s management for allowing his return. He encourages anyone who receives a cancer diagnosis not to give up. He shares that message every time, they go to a medical call for someone struggling in their cancer battle.

“A lot of times I’ll tell them, hey I had cancer too, but I’m a survivor, let’s do what we can do, we’re going to get you loaded up, get you to the hospital and let’s continue to fight,” said Sellers.

As firefighters continue their fight in Raleigh, News 13 looks into how a 10-cent bracelet could give researchers better insight into a firefighter’s cancer risk.

News 13 will premier a documentary, Deadlier than Fire, on May 20, 2021. It follows several former firefighters through their cancer diagnosis, showcases the steps departments are taking to lower a firefighter’s risk of contracting cancer and holds lawmakers accountable for a lack of changes on the state level.

Please note: This content carries a strict local market embargo. If you share the same market as the contributor of this article, you may not use it on any platform.

Article Topic Follows: National & World

Jump to comments ↓

CNN Newsource


KTVZ NewsChannel 21 is committed to providing a forum for civil and constructive conversation.

Please keep your comments respectful and relevant. You can review our Community Guidelines by clicking here

If you would like to share a story idea, please submit it here.

Skip to content