By Alison Cross
WESTPORT, Conn. — In July of 2017, after celebrating his daughter’s first birthday, Westport firefighter Paul Spennato received “the worst news” of his life — a stage-two myxoid liposarcoma was eating away at his left leg.
“It tore me apart,” the now 38-year-old father of two said. “It was tough on us, mentally, financially. My wife had to stop working to help take care of me. … It was very hard and scary. I never thought in a million years that I’d be sick.”
After 25 rounds of radiation therapy, doctors surgically removed the tumor from the inside of his knee, a process that left Spennato permanently scarred by radiation burns and missing muscle tissue. But five years later, the emotional scars are what keeps Spennato up at night.
“I just have that constant fear of it coming back, of being sick,” Spennato said. “I’ve lost people, I’ve seen people sick. This is a bad thing in our line of work right now.”
Spennato is among the roughly 26,800 firefighters in Connecticut living with an elevated risk of developing cancer who would receive new protections under a proposal to establish a rebuttable presumption that a firefighter’s cancer occurred as a result of their job.
S.B. 937 would allow current firefighters and those within five years of retirement to access workers’ compensation benefits for any cancer of the brain, skin, digestive, endocrine, hematological, lymphatic, reproductive, respiratory or skeletal systems.
It would not apply to firefighters with a propensity for cancer or evidence of cancer during their entry examinations. Exemptions would also occur for those who failed to submit annual physical exams, did not wear respiratory and personal protective equipment, smoked within 15 years of the diagnoses, or have worked less than five years on the jobs.
The bill is now on the calendar for a senate vote after it was reported out of the Legislative Commissioner’s Office Thursday following an eight to three joint favorable vote of the Labor and Public Employees Committee in late February.
If it passes both chambers and becomes law, Spennato said the guarantee of benefits would ease his anxieties.
“It would help a tremendous deal. It’s very difficult to worry about your bills and how you’re going to survive and then also fight a disease that is killing you,” Spennato said. “I just want to make sure that the men and women of the state of Connecticut are taken care of, God forbid something should happen to them, and have their families be taken care of. That’s all we’re looking to do, to help those who help us.”
Support and opposition
The proposal has been disputed by insurance companies, first selectmen and municipal interest groups who fear the expansive protections for firefighters will unduly burden towns and workers’ compensation insurers.
The eight people who testified in opposition to S.B. 937 said that a rebuttable presumption shifts the burden of proof from the employee to the employer, authorizing a considerable step away from the current workers’ compensation protocol. They said that such broad protections eliminate the need for a causal connection and would allow those suffering from non-work-related cancers to access the benefits. Furthermore, they argue the new unfunded mandate provides no state assistance to the towns that could end up paying out $1 million throughout a firefighter’s lifetime in a single claim.
“This bill would significantly change existing workers’ compensation laws thereby imposing crippling costs to municipalities,” a statement submitted by multiple representatives of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities said. “The bill also would limit a municipality’s right to defend itself and narrowly lists specific instances where a municipality would be able to rebut the presumption. CT tried rebuttable presumptions once before with heart and hypertension and found that repeal of that law was the only way to keep towns solvent.”
Opponents suggest that the state should instead focus on cancer prevention and remediation efforts, assist firefighters in purchasing life insurance, offer coverage through critical injury policies, and secure steady revenue streams for the Connecticut Firefighters Cancer Relief Fund.
The last time rebuttable presumption legislation saw substantial debate was in 2016. That year legislators passed a policy that placated both sides by establishing the state cancer relief fund to provide wage replacement benefits to firefighters diagnosed with cancer for up to two years using a one-cent surcharge on landline and mobile phone bills.
The legislation aimed to start payouts in 2019, but the Firefighters Cancer Relief Subcommittee authorized to disburse expenditures did not begin accepting and reviewing individual claims for wage replacement until September of 2022.
Peter Brown, the president of the Uniformed Professional Firefighters Association of Connecticut, said problems in the program are already evident.
“There’s been a couple of applications from our organization to that fund. I think it was a great first step, but what we found over the last eight to 10 years through national statistics and through our local experience around the state is that those benefits are significantly lacking in some of the areas that really would be beneficial to our firefighters and their families,” Brown said.
While a bill passed last year would siphon more money into the cancer relief fund by requiring municipalities to contribute $10 annually for each qualifying firefighter starting in 2024, Brown said firefighters need the entire suite of benefits workers’ compensation provides.
“It starts with wage replacement as soon as you’re out of work. It provides medical coverage for dealing with that illness for the entire duration that you’re going through treatment or beyond. It protects your job and your benefits while you’re out of work. And, if you’re unable to work, or if you succumb to the illness, it would provide you disability benefits for the rest of your life and it would provide survivor benefits for your family for the rest of their lives,” Brown said. “That’s just the high-level points. There’s probably even a few more if you dive into the statutes of workers’ comp.”
Brown and others argue that if these benefits already apply for firefighters who are injured or die in a fire, they should also be available to firefighters who contract cancer while on the job — an occurrence which Brown said is far too prevalent today.
Brown said in the last 18 months he and his colleagues lost two members of the Norwalk Fire Department to occupational cancer, 57-year-old Ralph Geter and 52-year-old Craig Saris. Both Geter and Saris continued serving the city of Norwalk until their deaths.
Brown said that Connecticut’s lack of a rebuttable presumption impacts how the two men are memorialized in the state.
“I worked alongside both of those Norwalk firefighters who battled every day with that illness — going through treatment, out sick, trying to come back to work, working through days where they’re just not feeling great — and to see them ultimately lose their battle was really difficult,” Brown said. “They received a line of duty designation and were recognized through the International Association of Fire Fighters on their memorial, but they won’t be recognized here in Connecticut for losing their lives because Connecticut doesn’t recognize that as a line of duty death.”
Similar stories echoed in the ears of legislators at a public hearing on S.B. 937. Hundreds of volunteer and career firefighters from departments across the state presented written and oral testimony in support of the bill, sharing their fears of contracting cancer on the job, their personal experiences fighting the disease, and the memories of beloved coworkers who lost their battles.
“We’re really trying to make sure that all those stories are heard because each one of them is not just a number. There’s a family behind it. There’s a firefighter behind it,” Brown said. “We’ve gotta get something done and put these protections in place. It obviously won’t bring back our firefighters, but it would provide that level of benefit and protection to their families that have to go on without them after that loss.”
‘It will always be a risk’
Cancer is a leading cause of death for firefighters. According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, nearly 75% of line-of-duty deaths in 2022 resulted from occupational cancer.
A study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that compared to the general population, firefighters have a 9% increased risk of cancer diagnoses and a 14% increased risk of cancer-related death.
Other researchers have found that risk for certain types of cancer, such as mesothelioma and testicular cancer, are up to two times greater among firefighters.
Last year, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer took the step to classify firefighting as a “Group 1: Carcinogenic to humans” after finding “sufficient evidence” of mesothelioma and bladder cancer from occupational exposure and “limited evidence” for melanoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and colon, prostate and testicular cancers.
The statistics weigh heavily on the minds of current firefighters and prospective recruits, a factor which Brown said is likely a contributing factor to the state’s shortage of volunteer firefighters and shrinking career applicant pools.
Caitlin Clarkson Pereira, a firefighter in Fairfield, told lawmakers that on her first day on the job in 2021 she was “shocked” to see signs posted with the message: “DID YOU WASH YOUR HANDS? Washing your hands helps prevent the spread of viruses, bacteria, and carcinogens. Wash your hands after any contact with turnout gear, radios and other equipment, and both before and after using the bathroom.”
Carcinogens follow firefighters in the smoke and soot of the fires they fight, the flame retardants they spray, the diesel exhaust from the engines they drive, and the protective gear they wear. These cancer-causing chemicals enter the body through inhalation, dermal absorption and ingestion.
“We see signs like these when we arrive at work for our 24-hour shifts, hanging in our kitchens, bathrooms, offices, informing us of how to wash our hands, do our laundry, how to prevent bringing carcinogens into our living spaces, our personal vehicles, and back home to our loved ones,” Pereira said at the public hearing. “Imagine working in a space for 24 hours at a time, sometimes longer, where cancer is so typical and so common that you accept the placement of such signs as this, especially in a place you call a fire house — a place you sleep.”
In a telling moment showing how accustomed to the risk some firefighters grow, Clarkson Pereira said that she has heard colleagues casually muse that if they come down with cancer, they will climb a ladder and “fall” off so that their newly broken back or neck would qualify for disability benefits.
Clarkson Pereira urged lawmakers “to ensure we are protected when our years of protecting others finally catches up with us.”
“We swore an oath to protect perfect strangers and their families and their property, and even their pets,” she said. “You don’t take an oath to save people you’ve never met before and not care immensely about the people that you are desperate to come home to in your house after every shift.”
Daniel Wuori, the Connecticut state director of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network trains recruitment classes and local departments on the risk and prevention methods to combat occupational cancer.
As Connecticut state director of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, Wuori is often the first man to give new recruits lessons on occupational cancer risks and prevention. He is also among the first many firefighters call after a cancer diagnosis.
In 2013, after a lump on Wuori’s chest ended up being a t-cell lymphoma, Wuori started volunteering as a mentor with the support network to help other firefighters with cancer. Today he leads the Connecticut branch of the national network, connecting firefighters with mentors in the profession who have or are currently living with cancer.
Wuori’s been there to offer a listening ear and words of support to firefighters facing the darkest and most uncertain moments of their lives, and he knows first-hand the peace of mind a rebuttable presumption for cancer would provide. He’s optimistic that this session, the protection will finally pass.
In his 40th year as a firefighter, Wuori believes cancer won’t be leaving the profession any time soon.
“I think it will always be a risk,” Wuori said, adding that firefighters need to focus on “taking care of yourself. After a fire … the important thing is cleaning right away, using the wipes that we have to wipe your face and hands, taking a shower and changing your clothes. Most firehouses now have extractors in it to wash their gear. … But the hazard’s always going to be there.”
But even when faced with physically and emotionally debilitating effects of cancer, firefighters don’t leave the profession either.
“Whether it’s a male or female firefighter, it’s that pride. Firefighters want to do their job and they want to be there to help people,” Wuori said. “That’s why I originally joined when I was 20, to help my community and the people in it.”
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