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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/JOHN SYKES JR. - 030719 - Shannon Ellington, a firefighter with the Little Rock Fire Department, uses a saw to cut rebar to practice gaining entry to locked buildings. He was taking part in training exercise at the old Department of Human Services facility in Alexander Thursday morning. Several fire departments in the central Arkansas area participated.

The retirement papers arrived a few days before Nathaniel Crump's death, forcing a decision upon the young firefighter that neither he nor his family wanted to make.

But by that point in mid-2017, the 30-year-old Crump had already had to return to work at the Little Rock Fire Department's Station 3, one of the city's busiest stations, despite a diagnosis of Stage 4 colon cancer.

"We were in our 20s when Nathaniel was diagnosed," Crump's widow, Jessica, recalled in an interview last week. "Him getting cancer -- he was fit, healthy -- was, was totally unexplainable. He had no family history."

Crump's doctors linked the deadly cancer to the noxious fumes and soot encountered on the job, Jessica Crump said, but after exhausting his sick leave, her husband was forced to return to work in the final weeks of his life. When he could no longer work, he was forced to take sharply reduced earnings through early retirement.

Firefighter activists say that at the time of Crump's death in June 2017, Arkansas had some of the weakest laws in the country related to line-of-duty cancer, providing only a $150,000 death benefit. But with a trio of bills signed recently by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, they say, Arkansas has risen to the nation's forefront in protecting firefighters with cancer.

In the first step taken by lawmakers, through House Bill 1345 (now Act 638 of 2019), Arkansas will join 33 other states that offer the presumption that cancer is linked to a firefighter's duties and will provide a disability benefit, according to the First Responder Center for Excellence.

[RELATED: Complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature]

Lawmakers also passed Senate Bill 585 (now Act 823) to establish a state trust fund for a firefighter cancer relief network.

In the third related action, the Legislature passed House Bill 1773, also called Crump's Law, to give firefighters diagnosed with cancer six months of paid sick leave. Hutchinson signed the legislation Thursday in a ceremony with Crump's family present. It has yet to be given an act number.

"Prior to this session, we were at the bottom," said Matthew Stallings, the political director for the Arkansas Professional Firefighters Association. Stallings fought fires alongside Crump, working together on Engine 3.

"We were one of only two states that recognized occupational cancer in the fire service when it kills [but] not disables," Stallings said. "We closed that gap, and not only that, we have an added benefit of the cancer leave."

DISABILITY BENEFITS

The link between fighting fires and developing certain cancers has been studied for years, with the results being taken into account in benefit policies on the city and state levels. One study completed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in 2015 looked at nearly 30,000 firefighters in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco and found they had higher rates of cancer -- specifically in the digestive, respiratory and urinary tracts -- than the general population.

Instances of malignant mesothelioma, linked to asbestos exposure, were nearly twice as high in firefighters, the study found. However, the study also noted a lack of better data in other areas, such as for firefighters who are women or members of minority groups.

Faced with mounting costs associated with workers' compensation, governments in places such as Baltimore have pointed to other findings questioning the links between firefighting and specific cancers. A report last year by the Insurance Journal stated that more than 86 percent of cancer claims filed by Texas firefighters over a period of six years were denied by their insurance carrier.

Last year, Congress passed the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act, with the intention of keeping better track of firefighters who develop cancer. Even before that law, Stallings and his association identified 52 Arkansas firefighters diagnosed with cancer since 2005.

"Other states use workmen's comp, they'll deny 99 percent of claims and that's not helping anybody, and we wanted to avoid that," Stallings said.

For that reason, the leader of the push to expand firefighters' cancer benefits, Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, said the decision was made to address disability benefits through the retirement systems, calling workers' compensation insurance systems used in other states "inadequate to completely cover the firefighters' needs."

Under Act 638, firefighters with at least 10 years of service who are diagnosed with cancer could retire on duty disability with a benefit worth 65 percent of their final average salary. Actuarial reports conducted for the state's two public retirement systems that cover firefighters estimated that the law would result in an additional one or two disability claims a year.

CRUMP'S LAW

Clowney, a freshman lawmaker, said she was introduced to Jessica Crump last summer through Stallings, after she won the Democratic primary in her district.

The three, in separate interviews, said they researched what other states were doing, spoke to firefighters and came up with a first-in-the-nation plan to implement a statewide cancer leave policy for firefighters.

One of the firefighters Stallings reached out to, Robert Mabe of the Trumann Fire Department in east Arkansas, was diagnosed in September with metastatic colon cancer. The cancer later spread to his liver.

In an interview, Mabe said he had five months of treatment that began in November, but he has since returned to work after running out of sick leave through his employer's catastrophic leave bank.

Mabe described himself as healthy but said he will soon start what he hopes will be his final three months of chemotherapy. He said that in the span of a week, he recently worked four structure fires.

"You just learn your limitations," Mabe said. "Is that scary sometimes? Yes, because we rely on each other to be strong. But at this point, I'm strong enough to be on the job and not put anybody at risk."

An earlier version of the legislation that became Crump's Law, filed at the beginning of the session, included a full year's worth of cancer leave, but Clowney said that was scaled back after meeting resistance from local leaders and lawmakers concerned about the costs.

Clowney refiled the legislation, adding Republican sponsors in the GOP-controlled Legislature. To ease concerns about the costs, language was added to allow cities to utilize existing catastrophic leave programs, and to create a network among fire departments that allows them to donate firefighters to cover shifts at departments where a worker has gone on cancer leave.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, filed legislation that became Act 823, establishing a state fund to support the network.

"The only big issue we had was of course the money side of it," said Jessica Crump. "Everyone kind of slowly but surely got on board."

Mark Hayes, the executive director of the Arkansas Municipal League, said the group remained "officially opposed" to the legislation that became Crump's Law, because of concerns about the financial burden it would place on cities and towns. Hayes cited estimates that six months of cancer leave for a single firefighter would cost between $40,000 to $75,000 in Fort Smith, and higher in North Little Rock.

"We hope the fund created by Sen. Dismang might offset the cost," Hayes said.

At last week's bill-signing ceremony attended by Jessica Crump, her parents and firefighters from around the state, the attitude was upbeat. Hutchinson, while signing the bills, called them an "example of good legislators hearing of challenges in their districts or in the state and addressing it."

Both Mabe and Stallings said they've heard from firefighters in Tennessee who are interested in lobbying for similar protections from that state's Legislature in Nashville.

"If we can show that this works here, this is something that they can use elsewhere," Stallings said.

SundayMonday on 04/15/2019

Print Headline: New laws assist ailing Arkansas firefighters

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