Fighting Fires and Cancer: Here’s what KTAR News learned

Sep 12, 2019, 4:45 AM | Updated: 4:48 pm

Firefighters across the Valley have been diagnosed with various types of cancer they say they contracted while on the job.

Their stories and subsequent denials for workers’ compensation coverage have left families in pain and looking for relief.

In an effort to fully understand the complicated situation, KTAR News 92.3 FM reporter Ali Vetnar and videographer Matt Bertram interviewed firefighters, medical professionals, lawmakers, politicians and others about what can be done for ailing firefighters.

KTAR News 92.3 FM presents Fighting Fires and Cancer covered a lot of ground over three days, so here are the highlights.

Valley firefighters’ stories of diagnosis, denial

KTAR News 92.3 FM interviewed four firefighters working in the cities of Glendale, Goodyear and Casa Grande. They have all been diagnosed with various types of cancer they say they contracted while on the job.

These firefighters claim the cities they work for are getting around the law and relying on one oncologist in the Valley, whose medical opinion has led to the denial of their cases.

The Arizona Legislature in 2017 overwhelmingly passed HB 2161 to ensure protection for health benefits of firefighters who contract cancer as a result of their job.  

Gov. Doug Ducey signed the legislation into law. 

Despite the law in place, Valley firefighters say their cases are still being denied. 

The Doctors’ and cities’ opinions

In the second part of this investigative piece, we talked to medical professionals who specialize in this area, who work to protect the firefighters both in the doctor’s office and against the system denying their claims. The cities defend their decisions and say they are following the law.

Some Valley medical professionals have turned into advocates for some firefighters battling cancer.   

Kepra Jack, co-owner and chief operations officer of Heartfit for Duty, has been in the first responder and public safety health field for more than 15 years. She works with 22 different fire agencies in the state of Arizona. 

“Unfortunately, we found and diagnosed seven cases of cancer last year,” Jack said“We see these really young healthy guys come in and they don’t have anything. Then five, seven, 12, 15 years in, they have testicular cancer, colorectal cancer or thyroid cancer.” 

When firefighters are diagnosed with cancer, their union leaders and advocates are some of the first people they get in touch with to help them through the process of submitting a workers’ compensation claim. 

“We thought things would be a little bit different when the law was passed in 2017 that changed the language for presumptive cancers for firefighters,” said Brian Moore, vice president of member benefits with United Phoenix Firefighters.

Finding a solution for Valley firefighters

For the final part of this investigative piece, we spoke to state officials about the firefighters’ denial and what needs to happen at a state level to change the process.

The Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona felt they won big when Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill that spells out a host of diseases and cancers that affect firefighters and are presumed to have been caused by their jobs.

The Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona president said he believes firefighters with cancer should be covered.  

“Our members not only risk getting injured, but getting sick because of toxic exposures and the physical stress of the job,” Bryan Jeffries said after the law was passed.

“These new laws ensure our members will have immediate access to the care they need should they be diagnosed with cardiac disease or cancer.” 

Nearly two years later, firefighters believe that isn’t exactly the case

Firefighters now look to state leaders for help in getting their claims approved.

After claim reversal, Glendale firefighter with cancer wins benefits

A Glendale firefighter battling both job-related cancer and a workers’ compensation denial has learned the decision was reversed and his claim approved.

“It was like a huge mountain just got lifted off my shoulders,” Capt. Kevin Thompson told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Mac & Gaydos last week.

“For me you had the physical part of the battle in fighting the cancer, but how to finance that fight after I retire and don’t have my health insurance benefits becomes a very real deal. How do I stay alive, how do I pay for it becomes an issue.”

Thompson was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in April of this year. He’s been a firefighter for more than two decades.

He filed for workers’ compensation May 24 and was denied June 25.

Before cancer death, Goodyear firefighter Austin Peck shared story

As a child, Austin Peck knew he wanted to be a firefighter. He achieved his dream and lived it for 11 years until his passing on Aug. 31. He had just celebrated his 35th birthday.  

I was diagnosed with sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma. They call it SNUC for short,” explained Peck in an exclusive interview weeks before his line-of-duty death.  

Peck medically retired from the Goodyear Fire Department this summer after more than a decade in the service.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Pass it along to the KTAR News team here.

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Fighting Fires and Cancer: Here’s what KTAR News learned