Firefighter battling cancer

Published 6:51 pm Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Asbestos during training is likely cause

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Adrian Manning began his journey to becoming a firefighter and emergency medic after watching his grandfather die of a massive heart attack. 

“There was nothing I could do and the paramedic told me to learn CPR,” said Manning. He took the advice and ran with it.  

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The Isle of Wight resident has since served 17 years with the Newport News Fire Department, as well as working as a part-time EMT with Isle of Wight County Emergency Services.  {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

That journey has also led him to testify earlier this year in front of the state Senate Finance Committee, pushing lawmakers to amend a law that helps firefighters diagnosed with certain diseases receive compensation. 

It’s a law that also impacts Isle of Wight County’s more than 300 volunteer firefighters. 

Last year, Manning was diagnosed with rectal cancer. He was 41 years old and considered low risk. 

There was one risk area, however, that he did fall into. Research in recent years has discovered that firefighters, due to the toxins they are exposed to in a fire, are more likely to develop certain types of cancers. 

Manning can trace the likely toxin back to a training exercise, where the squad began work on the wrong house for what they call a “live burn.” 

“We were in there, knocking out drywall,” said Manning when a city inspector told them that the correct house was next door. His captain documented the firefighters’ exposure to asbestos and said a copy would be put in their personnel files.

That was in 2002. 

As soon as Manning learned he had rectal cancer, he informed his department and went off in search of that document. Proof of exposure is part of obtaining workers’ compensation benefits under a Virginia law concerning the presumption that certain diseases are work-related.  

The law applies to firefighters and certain other employees and includes a list of diseases and likely triggers. Asbestos and rectal cancer were linked on the list. 

The exposure document wasn’t in his file, however, and he was told to check with the Virginia Department of Fire Programs. A Freedom of Information Act request produced the needed document, said Manning.  

Meanwhile, Manning was out on leave and undergoing cancer treatment. He had applied for workers’ compensation, expecting to be reimbursed for lost wages. 

That didn’t happen. Manning then had a hearing before the Workers’ Comp Board and was given a favorable judgment, but rather than pay his wages, the city appealed.  

The city also informed him earlier this year that he was out of federal Family and Medical Leave Act time off, despite having returned to work a few months after his diagnosis, albeit on light duty. His wife, Amy, said the city threatened to put him on an unpaid leave of absence, and if that had happened, the family would lose its health insurance or have to pay out of pocket.

Newport News lost its workers’ comp appeal in August and can now either appeal again or pay back wages by mid-October. The case is currently unresolved, said Amy. 

The city of Newport News did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Without regular wages for 15 months, the Mannings struggled by with help from friends, family and emergency responders in Isle of Wight, Suffolk and Newport News. 

The Mannings have three children, age 21, 17 and seven. Their oldest had to leave college and go to a community college near home due to the financial strain.

“It was pay for college or the mortgage,” said Amy, adding that the support they did get was a real comfort. 

“We could not have made it through this without the ‘we got your back mentality,’ she said. 

Changing the law

Manning’s ordeal led him to testify in Richmond during the 2019 General Assembly session after Sen. John Cosgrove, R-14th, submitted amendments to Senate Bill 1030. 

The bill passed, but must be passed again and signed by the governor during the 2020 session for it to become law. 

The law deals with providing workers’ compensation to firefighters and other types of workers who are presumed to develop certain types of cancers and medical conditions based on exposure to toxins and other situations while on the job. 

Cosgrove’s bill added cancer of the colon, brain and testes to the list, which had already included rectal cancer. 

Research has found that these cancers appear to be caused by carcinogens that firefighters are exposed to, and 9/11 is a good example, said Cosgrove.

The law requires the toxin to be a suspected carcinogen as defined by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. On that list, asbestos is listed as a suspected cause of rectal cancer — and which meets the law’s current requirements. 

Other caveats include having completed at least 12 years of continuous service, and the employee having had a pre-employment physical. The disease is presumed to be an occupational disease unless competent evidence is presented to the contrary, according to the law.

Manning said he met the burden of the law, but the city of Newport News fought his claim anyway. 

Cosgrove said Manning’s case is a prime example of why this law needs work. 

The bill, in one form or another, has been in play for 15 years. Cosgrove said the main argument against it has been cost. 

As part of its passage this year, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission is going to review the state’s workers’ compensation program, and lawmakers must take its findings into consideration when the bill comes up again next January. 

Volunteer firefighters

This is where Windsor District Supervisor Joel Acree steps in. 

Acree served for more than 30 years as a volunteer firefighter with the Carrollton Volunteer Fire Department, and is a paid emergency responder in York County.

He knows all too well the hazards firefighters face when entering a burning building and how those extend far beyond the flames. 

Not only do firefighters run the risk of inhaling toxins through the smoke, it is now known that they are absorbed through the skin, said Acree. 

And the suits firefighters wear are not sealed, he added.

His concern is for Isle of Wight’s many volunteer firefighters who may develop cancer or other respiratory diseases and run into brick walls when trying to collect benefits due to certain loopholes in the law.

The law does cover volunteer firefighters, but the 12 years of continuous service, as well as the need to document exposure, is a problem, he said. 

Since most volunteer firefighters also work as paid providers in other localities, pinpointing exposure is even more difficult, said Acree. 

It sets up a situation where each locality can claim the exposure happened while the firefighter was serving elsewhere, he said.

For example, Isle of Wight reports needle sticks and exposure to bodily fluids by EMTs, but Acree has no knowledge that toxins released during a fire are documented. 

While paid firefighters receive assistance in exposure reporting by the union, volunteers, well, “they’re kind of out there on their own,” he said. 

Another problem is that Isle of Wight County’s volunteers are not currently required to undergo a physical before they begin serving. Without that physical, conducted prior to a potential future disease appears, a firefighter would not be eligible for benefits under the workers’ comp presumption law. The county also needs to define the difference between a firefighter and other positions, as physicals are expensive, said Acree. 

That’s one reason Acree and the volunteers have been pushing for more standards to be mandated by the Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors.  

The Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors also voiced its support of SB 1030 and companion House Bill 1804 as part of its legislative agenda for the upcoming General Assembly. 

Cosgrove became interested in this issue while serving in the Chesapeake City Council. He has a friend who was a firefighter with the City of Norfolk, and one day came home with a burn on his cheek from a fire. 

The burn was due to a gap between the helmet and breathing mask.

“It really, really got to me,” said Cosgrove, adding that it also sparked a career-long interest in the needs of first responders. 

“Our duty as legislators is to take care of those who take care of us,” he said, adding that many firefighters, their widows and widowers, testified in favor of the bill this year. 

“The stories will rip your heart out,” he said. 

Amy said it’s been difficult bringing her family’s problems to the public, but their mission is a singular one — to prevent a similar situation from happening to another firefighter in the future.  {/mprestriction}