ASHEVILLE, N.C. (WLOS) — Cancer caused 66-percent of career firefighter line of duty deaths nationwide between 2002 and 2019 according to data from the International Association of Fire Fighters.
The reason why is the focus of News 13’s Deadlier than Fire series and documentary following several firefighters through their cancer battle.
At least 257 North Carolina firefighters from 77 departments have been diagnosed with cancer over the last decade according to a 2020 Health and Safety Survey done by the North Carolina Association of Fire Chiefs. Right now, the biggest battle is a lack of data and how to account for whether the job is putting firefighters at a greater risk. That’s slowly changing as states including North Carolina recognize collecting data concerning cancer cases among firefighters and conducting better research are the only way to better understand what appear to be increasing cases.
North Carolina is one of two states without occupational cancer benefits for firefighters. That’s why firefighters are demanding action from lawmakers after more than a decade of inaction.
News 13 sat down with firefighters and lawmakers trying to reconcile their battle for better benefits during a fight for their lives.
For firefighters, failure has catastrophic consequences.
They avoid it, by staying prepared, which includes testing equipment, from neighborhood fire hydrants to the hoses on their trucks.
It gives Concord Fire Captain Steven Madorin, Engineer Joe Munday and Lieutenant Matt Sellers confidence in those tools, when it’s time to go to work and when the community is counting on them.
“Being there, to see people on their worst day. To try to help them and try and turn it around to make it a better day for them has always been very rewarding for me,” said Lt. Mall Sellers, at Concord Fire Station 5.
Sellers never imagined the job would risk his life or 20 of his fellow Concord firefighters lives in any way but fighting fires.
“I never had a mass,” explained Sellers. “They weren’t real sure how to treat the type of cancer I did have so they were just throwing everything they had at it.”
It was a diagnosis that had Sellers leaning on fellow firefighters.
“Not letting you be alone to sit there and stew over things,” said Sellers. According to the veteran firefighter, his doctors had tough words that could have had anyone questioning their future. “They told me I had about a 30-percent survival rate that what was really tough,” said Sellers.
In 2011, the rare T-cell Lymphoma hospitalized Sellers every third week for chemo, later forcing a leave of absence from the job he loved, and creating a hardship for his family. He remembers the tough conversation he had with his city employer.
“You’re on long-term disability now, we’re not going to consider you an employee and this was right before I was getting ready to go in for my bone marrow transplant,” said Sellers.
“It puts a lot of pressure on your whole family. That’s money you’re not bringing in, but you’re still spending on hospital bills, and other stuff so it gets very tight,” said Sellers.
In North Carolina, without presumptive cancer legislation to get worker’s comp. You have to prove which fire caused your cancer. That’s nearly impossible. Out of options in 2016 Sellers took medical retirement.
“I didn’t want to, but I did,” said Sellers.
That’s where firefighters say North Carolina has failed Sellers and other firefighters diagnosed with cancer at increasing rates. It’s one of the last states without a comprehensive line of duty cancer coverage. Delaware is the other.