Greg Polanski’s photo is one of six on the wall at fire headquarters in Meriden memorializing active members of the department who died of cancer.
For nearly half of his over 30-year career, Polanski served as the local union president and pushed for expanded rights for his colleagues. He died in 2014 after a two-year battle with brain cancer. Unlike a majority of states, in Connecticut cancer isn’t presumed to be an occupational risk for firefighters, meaning Polanski wasn’t entitled to workers’ compensation benefits during his fight with the disease, and his family wasn’t eligible for benefits after his death.
Due to the lack of a legal presumption in the state, volunteer or career firefighters temporarily or permanently disabled due to cancer aren’t entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. Family members of firefighters who die from cancer can’t collect benefits either, under state law. There are 17 states, including Connecticut, that don’t consider cancer an occupational hazard for firefighters, despite recent studies that have shown otherwise.
Legislation introduced last week by the General Assembly’s Labor and Public Employees Committee would expand workers’ compensation coverage to career and volunteer firefighters diagnosed with cancer, under the presumption that the cancer was caused on the job “by the inhalation, absorption or ingestion of noxious fumes or poisonous gases” unless proven otherwise.
The bill covers Kahler’s Disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or any condition of cancer affecting the brain, skin, skeletal system, digestive system, endocrine system, respiratory system, lymphatic system, reproductive system, urinary system or hematological system. A similar bill was introduced last year, but was never taken up by the House after it was passed by the Senate despite objections from municipal groups who viewed the proposal as an unfunded and difficult-to-calculate mandate on communities.
A recent study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health suggests firefighters are at increased risk of cancer compared to the general public due to regular exposure to toxic contaminants during fires. The 2013 study included more than 30,000 firefighters who worked full time between 1950 and 2010.
Polanski’s death was eye opening for firefighters in Meriden, Deputy Fire Chief Ryan Dunn said. Practices previously thought to be harmless, such as wearing dirty gear or taking air masks off during the tail end of fire responses, have been thrown out the window. Departments across the country have put an emphasis on keeping gear clean and wearing oxygen masks at all times during a response. Firefighters are also urged to shower after every call. High temperatures increase the body’s ability to absorb toxic chemicals, Dunn said, so it’s imperative that firefighters quickly cleanse themselves of soot after a fire.
“No longer is it the cool thing to have soot on your face,” he said.
A number of firefighters in Meriden have been diagnosed with cancer, according to Assistant Fire Chief Russ Donovan.
“A handful have passed away,” he said. “The cancer rate in the firefighting world is about 60 percent higher than the general population”
Donovan himself is a cancer survivor. Firefighters are often exposed to benzene, a chemical found in fuel and types of plastic, while responding to fires, he said. In 2006, Donovan was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia, a type of cancer linked to benzene exposure. For two months after his diagnosis, Donovan received extensive treatment and still takes medication. A decade later, he is cancer free. While Donovan wasn’t entitled to workers’ compensation benefits during his recovery process, he had support from his colleagues.
“Firefighters here were outstandingly helpful covering for me and taking care of shifts and getting me back on my feet,” he said.
State Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, a Democrat from Meriden, said she supports legislation to expand benefits for firefighters. Polanski was a friend and member of the Democratic Town Committee in Meriden, she said. He served as Bartolomeo’s deputy treasurer during her first Senate campaign in 2012. Last year, Bartolomeo co-sponsored and testified in support of a bill to expand workers’ compensation for firefighters.
Many products, such as children’s toys, are now produced with chemicals meant to act as flame retardants. Ironically, when those chemicals burn during a fire, they “are being shown to cause cancer in firefighters,” Bartolomeo said.
There was objection to the legislation last year from some who said that firefighters put themselves in harm’s way by choosing a dangerous profession.
“I don’t buy that,” she said. “This job has changed. Years ago, in a majority of structure fires, wood was burning. Now chemicals are in everything.”
Last year, municipal groups opposed the legislation, citing cost concerns. The nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis attempted to determine the financial impact of last year’s bill. But just like the pending bill, last year’s legislation only named two specific types of cancer – Kahler’s Disease and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Cost varies by type of cancer, but research conducted by OFA estimates that the average annual cost of initial cancer treatment is around $57,000. The average annual cost of ongoing treatment is around $11,697, according to OFA. Workers’ compensation benefits include coverage for medical treatment and wage replacement.
Kevin Maloney, a spokesman for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said local government needs to “balance the needs of one group of employees with the continued needs of all other essential services.”
Discussions surrounding the pending legislation are ongoing with lawmakers and union leaders, he said, noting that “any common ground that is reached will be based upon meeting the concerns of our firefighters in a manner that is fiscally sustainable for Connecticut towns and cities.”
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said he didn’t vote for the bill last year because it included a provision regarding mental health coverage for police “that was not fully thought out.”
“Because of this separate issue, I could not support a bill that raised so many unanswered questions,” he said. “I think that the firefighter issue has a better chance of passing this year if it is a standalone piece of legislation and if it takes into consideration the concerns of municipalities.”
State Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, also said he voted against the bill to expand benefits for firefighters last year because of the provision impacting police.
While lawmakers work to craft legislation, firefighters are concentrating on preventative measures.
Wallingford Fire Chief Richard Heidgerd said new washing machines were purchased by the town last year that remove soot from equipment without damaging fire retardant material. In just the past decade, the culture has changed around cleanliness and firefighting. Years ago, “the dirtier you were the more you looked like you worked,” Heidgerd said, adding that firefighters now wash their gear regularly.
“It wasn’t like that in the past,” he noted.
If cancer is deemed to be job-related for firefighters, “protections are appropriate,” Heidgerd said. “But we have the responsibility to prevent it in the first place. If all of those fail safes don’t work, it’s nice to have that protection.”
Cheshire Fire Chief Jack Casner is taking similar precautions at his department to prevent cancer. Regarding workers’ compensation for firefighters diagnosed with cancer, he said, “I think, like anything, if it’s an occupational exposure, the employee should be compensated for it.”
While the legislation “can’t just be an open checkbook,” Casner added, if the cancer is directly related to the job, “I think the employer has some obligation.”
Donovan said he returned to the Meriden Fire Department after recovering from his initial cancer diagnosis because it is “more of a calling than a job.”
“I enjoy my work,” he said. “I do worry about other firefighters. My son is a career firefighter here. I worry about his exposure.”
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