Firefighters say Arkansas legislation is behind in helping them fight cancer

HARRISON, Ark. - Jim McCammon has put his life on the line since the 1970s, when he started his career as a firefighter in Harrison.

Now the same hero who fought every day to save lives is fighting for his own.

"I retired in 2007, 2012 kidney cancer, 2016 liver cancer, 2018 lung cancer, and now they have found it's moving to my lymph nodes," McCammon said.

He said doctors are unable to tell him if his cancer is firefighter-related.

"A friend of mine who just told me about three weeks ago, worked at the same time that I did, told me he had his right kidney removed and he was just diagnosed with lung and liver cancer and is starting chemo just a couple weeks ago. Same department. Same town. So what does that tell you?" McCammon asked.

A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health shows firefighters have a 9 percent higher chance of getting cancer than the rest of us, and a 14 percent higher chance of dying from it.

"That's probably the leading cause of all the cancers is the chemicals that are produced from the fire that you inhale after the fire," McCammon said.

The current lieutenant at the Harrison Fire Department said for years firefighters didn’t have proper ways to clean their gear and get the chemicals off their uniforms quickly.

"Years ago, it used to be a badge of honor to have soot, a dirty helmet, dirty gloves, dingy turnouts," Lt Nick Robertson said.

"If you have a fire early on your shift, you're stuck with those bunkers until your shift is over," McCammon said.

Now stations have made changes: Making sure truck exhaust is funneled out of the stations, improving breathing equipment, and washing their gear in a special machine.

"We're making sure that we try to wash our turnouts as soon as we're done with the fire," Robertson said. "Not be wearing them through the station."

Even though technology has changed to help prevent firefighters from trailing around harmful chemicals, legislation to help those firefighters who are eventually diagnosed with cancer is a different story.

"We give our youth and our health to the community," Matthew Stallings, with the Arkansas Professional Fire Fighters, said. "When we get sick from doing it, it'd be nice for a little bit of relief. And right now there's not anything unless you die."

Thirty-three states, including Missouri, have legislation that allows firefighters diagnosed with cancer to get disability benefits while they're alive.

"In other states they give them the money so they can help with their bills," McCammon said.

But in Arkansas, it's a death benefit.

If someone is diagnosed with cancer before the age of 68 and dies, their families can get $150,000 from the state.

A panel decides if the cancer could have been from their job, or not.

But even this is a benefit McCammon’s family will not receive.

He was diagnosed too many years after he retired.

"If you're diagnosed within five years of retirement. I wasn't within that time period," he said.

The Arkansas Professional Fire Fighters are hoping to help others in this same fight, with a new state bill called Crump's Law.

"What we're asking for is for time to fight cancer because right now there's nothing in place for firefighters who are active and contract cancer," Stallings said.

It would provide sick leave.

"It looks like a whole lot of hours, but basically that's just a year. The way we look at it, in the chain of care, time is the cheapest link," Stallings said.

But a state representative said the funds have to come with it.

"Do I think there should be something? You bet," State Rep. Jack Fortner, R-Yellville, said. "Do I think the local fire departments, especially the ones in this district, can support that? Right now I don't."

Fortner said he doesn't think smaller fire stations and taxpayers could afford to foot that bill.

"What you do is give people false hope. You say, 'We've made a law, but we haven't funded it, which means there's no money.' So what good is that?" he said.

He said the issue is also about where you draw the line.

"Firefighters again if it wasn't for them we'd be in desperate shape. But where do you draw the line with first responders? Policemen? The people at the sanitary landfill that receive the debris from fires that cause the cancer?" he asked.

And what about firefighters who aren't full time?

"Just because you're a part time or volunteer doesn't mean you're any less susceptible to exposure," Fortner added.

Despite that, he thinks the bill will move forward.

"I suspect that if it is written with a few amendments and brought before the House, I imagine it'll be passed. I imagine it won't be funded. Because who's going to say no? Who's going to say no? We all have to go home and face our firefighters," Fortner said.

Asked if he would say no, he said no.

McCammon said he understands right now there's no legislation that can help him.

But, he planned ahead.

"I decided that you know there's a good chance I'm going to get cancer from this job. So I bought a cancer policy," McCammon said.

He suggests other firefighters do the same, and said if he could go back and do it all over again:

“I don't regret it at all," he said.