Failing our firefighters?

FOX19 Investigates: Failing our firefighters?

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - We rely on firefighters to help us at our most vulnerable. But are some states failing to help them when they need it most?

Ohio and Kentucky are among 16 states that do not recognize the increased risk of cancer for firefighters.

Multiple scientific studies, including a comprehensive study by researchers at the University of Cincinnati, have shown a link between firefighting and an increased risk of certain cancers.

Thirty-four states, including Indiana and Illinois, currently have some type of presumptive cancer law.

The presumptive law presumes that firefighters develop certain types of cancer as a result of their occupation, making them eligible for benefits without having to prove a direct cause for the disease. Right now in Ohio, firefighters diagnosed with cancer can't get worker's compensation and if they die, their families don't receive death benefits. Ohio Senator Tom Patton (R-Strongsville) plans to introduce presumptive cancer legislation in the next few weeks.

"These are the people that run into the burning building when everyone else is running out," Patton said. "It's our responsibility that if they should develop a cancer, that their children, that their family that they leave behind, that they'll be taken care of. We owe them that much."

District Chief Jon Frye, 41, of the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department, was the picture of heath before he was diagnosed with cancer.

"On Wednesday, the 23rd of July, I was told I had AML, acute myeloid leukemia," Frye said.

He can't say for sure if his years of fighting fires caused his illness.

"Makes me wonder. I'm not here to place blame. When I signed up for this job, who knows what'll happen. That's what I've accepted from day one."

"I can tell you the day I was told I have cancer, it stuck. It's like you put that on me that day," said Bob Kirby, an EMT/firefighter, also with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department. Kirby was diagnosed with skin cancer on his face and leg. He's been a firefighter for more than 40 years.

"When you're done you smell it on your body. You have to wash it off your body," Kirby said. "There's a reason to think that whatever is burning can get into your skin and cause cancer."

Multiple researchers agree, citing increased exposure to toxic, burning chemicals. A 2006 University of Cincinnati (UC) study found that firefighters have a greater rate of certain cancers, among them multiple myeloma, skin, colon, brain, prostate and testicular cancers. For example the study suggested firefighters are twice as likely to contract testicular cancer than other professions.

Possible or probable increased likelihood among firefighters:

  • Buccal
  • Stomach
  • Colon
  • Rectal
  • Skin
  • Multiple Myeloma
  • Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma
  • Skin
  • Prostate
  • Testicular
  • Leukemia
  • Brain

In 2013, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) also conducted a study which confirmed earlier findings - firefighters have a higher rate of cancer than the general public.

READ: Cancer risk among firefighters: A review and meta-analysis of 32 studies

Despite mounting scientific evidence, Ohio lawmakers have failed twice to pass presumptive cancer legislation. Both times the bills never made it out of committee. Sen. Patton said the main opposition came from municipal governments concerned with the cost of additional benefits for firefighters.

"The opposition that was strong came from the city of Cleveland direct, the municipal league, which represents all the cities and the township association, and clearly their answer was only, 'Is this going to cost us money?'," Patton said.

Patton is hoping the third time's the charm in this legislative session.

"We need to have the strength of the public, saying the mayors may not like it but the rest of the people in your town or city are all for it because they know it's the right thing to do," he said.

"I take nine pills in the morning, 11 pills at night," said Frye, as he counted out his medication in his Hamilton County home.

He's been off work since his diagnosis and treatment began in July. He received a bone marrow transplant in October after his brother was identified as a perfect match. Frye said that was a "gift from God." The doctors tell him his prognosis is good.

While he's been working from home, Frye can't wait for the day he can return to the station. That day could come as soon as the doctor clears him. He's hoping within the next few weeks.

The veteran firefighter has plenty of support when he does go back. His fellow firefighters have hung signs that read "Frye Strong" from the windows of all the fire trucks.

"I feel like I'm not only fighting cancer for me but for the team that kind of gathered around me," he said. "I feel like I owe it to them to stay fighting every day."

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