Tracy (Koons) Beavers may have retired from her position as the first female fighter at the Bucyrus Fire Department in 2008, but her fight for presumptive cancer legislation for Ohio firefighters continues.
Tracy, who was a lieutenant and paramedic during her time with the department in her hometown, now lives in Akron with her husband, John, who is a 25-year veteran with the Akron Fire Department where he serves as a lieutenant and fire and paramedic instructor. John is currently battling stage three prostate cancer while Tracy was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 and is now cancer-free. Both John and Tracy are members of the Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters and have served on the legislative committee.
Tracy testified this week before the Ohio Senate Insurance Committee in Columbus as a proponent for Senate Bill 27. The bill proposes that a firefighter who is disabled as a result of specified types of cancer is presumed for purposes of the laws governing workers’ compensation and the Ohio Police and Fire Pension Fund to have incurred the cancer while performing official duties as a firefighter.
“Prostate cancer is supposed to be the slowest growing, easiest to cure form of cancer. That is not our experience. The doctors are telling us that because of John’s exposures as a firefighter, the known development of prostate cancer cells do not apply to him. We have both been advocates of wearing protective equipment, cleaning your gear, and limiting our exposures,” Tracy said during her testimony. “Even with these safety measures in place, firefighting is a dangerous job. Changes in construction materials, household goods and furnishings have increased exposure risks ten-fold. Even if we are the most well-trained in our chosen profession, the strongest in our class, and the brightest of the bunch, the job we love may very well be the thing that kills us in the end. The exposures are too frequent and the stress inherently just way too high.”
According to Doug Stern, communications director for OAPFF, said that firefighters are exposed to a toxic soup of chemicals and combustion byproducts linked to cancer.
“Many of our colleagues are dying with their boots off at an increased rate and younger age than the general population. We are exposed to these toxins through more methods than just inhalation. We are seeing many of them absorbed through the skin. The OAPFF has taken the lead in education and prevention of occupation cancer but our efforts can only do so much. The nature of the job means that not all the dangers and exposures can be eliminated,” Stern said.
Stern said that a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in 2013 found that fire fighters have a 14 percent increased risk of dying from cancer compared to the general population.
“Maybe more significant is that the same study found that fire fighters have statistically significant higher risks of dying from seven different types cancer when compared to the general population,” said Stern.
Those cancers include mesothelioma (100 percent increase), rectum (45 percent increase), buccal/pharynx (40 percent increase), esophagus (39 percent increase), large intestine/colon (31 percent increase), kidney (29 percent increase) and lung (10 percent increase).
“These are the cancers that are recognized by Senate Bill 27 as being presumptive. We have attempted to have legislation passed in the previous General Assembly Sessions, but those bills included all cancers. Senate Bill 27 recognizes the science that proves that fire fighters are getting certain types of cancers on the job,” said Stern.
Tracy said that John is using all of his banked sick time along with his vacation time to receive his radiation treatment in Chicago and is hopeful he can return to work within the next few months.
“If Ohio was already a presumptive cancer state, John would be receiving workers compensation instead,” Tracy said.
Lt. Jeff Pennington of the Galion Fire Department said he also supports Senate Bill 27 and is hopeful the bill will become law in the near future.
“In our job, we are at a higher risk for certain cancers than the general public. Since cancer occurs over time, unlike an injury we suffer on the job that is obvious such as a burn, it is harder to get compensation,” Pennington said. “As firefighters, we love taking care of people and risk our lives and even our health to do so. In the end, it would be nice to be covered if we get cancer. We are going to do our jobs, though, regardless of what is covered or not.”
Reach Gasuras on Twitter: @kimberlygasuras