Bal­anc­ing acts

Daily Southtown (Sunday) - - LINE OF DUTY - Kcul­[email protected]­

po­sures to tox­ins, an ar­ray of other fac­tors may in­flu­ence whether a par­tic­u­lar can­cer de­vel­ops, Daniels said. Those fac­tors in­clude fam­ily his­tory and life­style habits, such as diet, ex­er­cise, smokingand al­co­hol con­sump­tion.

“There is no way to tell if a can­cer­ous tu­mor is oc­cu­pa­tion­re­lated by just look­ing at the tu­mor,” Daniels said. “Be­cause of that, there's al­ways an amount of un­cer­tainty, and it can be hard to get at the truth.”

Still, Daniels said: “There is un­equiv­o­cal ev­i­dence that fire­fight­ers are ex­posed to car­cino­gens, and it's not too far of a stretch to say that with in­creased ex­po­sure comes in­creased risk.”

But Daniels said the NIOSH study does not yet yield sci­en­tific ev­i­dence to sup­port the gen­eral con­sen­sus among fire­fight­ers that can­cer deaths in their ranks are surg­ing.

“There is ab­so­lutely more aware­ness of fire­fighter can­cer deaths than in the past, and more at­ten­tion is given to pre­ven­tion, but I can't say if there are more or less cases,” he said.

As re­searchers likeDaniels con­tinue to study whether fire­fight­ers have a higher risk of can­cer due to ex­po­sure to tox­ins while on the job, of­fi­cials at de­part­ments across the Chicago sub­urbs are­be­com­ing in­creas­ingly vig­i­lant about com­bat­ing what many de­scribe as the most daunt­ing chal­lenge now fac­ing fire­fight­ers.

The death of Waukegan fire­fighter Kevin Old­ham, 33, from pan­cre­atic can­cer in 2011, fol- lowed by the di­ag­noses of two mem­bers of the de­part­ment who cur­rently are bat­tling can­cer, has made pre­vent­ing can­cer a top pri­or­ity for the de­part­ment, Waukegan fire Chief Ge­orge Bridges Jr. said.

“Fire­fight­ers th­ese days are not just fight­ing fires. The­yare deal­ing with struc­tures that are cat­e­go­rized as (haz­ardous ma­te­ri­als) in­ci­dents be­cause of all of the chem­i­cal tox­ins in the build­ings,” Bridges said. “As a fire chief, fire­fight­ers are my su­per­heroes, and the byprod­ucts of to­day's fires are their kryp­tonite.”

He added: “It re­ally touched home af­ter Kevin's death. … He was very young, and had a wife and kids.

“We are a fam­ily here, and when some­one dies or is ill, and to think there's some­thingwe can do to help pre­vent this, it hurts us even­more,” Bridges said.

As fire chiefs like Bridges cope with the loss of a fire­fighter and strug­gle to find­ways to help those who are still bat­tling can­cer, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in the area face for­mi­da­ble chal­lenges posed by can­cer cases.

In Buf­falo Grove, vil­lage of­fi­cials said the de­ci­sion to file a law­suit con­test­ing the fire­fighter pen­sion board's rul­ing to grant Kevin Hauber's fam­ily a full pen­sion­was­made af­ter­muchde­lib­er­a­tion.

Pay­ing the Hauber fam­ily the full pen­sion ben­e­fit would cost tax­pay­ers an ad­di­tional $1.7 mil­lion over the course of the pen­sion, of­fi­cials have said.

In ad­di­tion, of­fi­cials said the pen­sion board's de­ci­sion rep­re­sented a “prece­dent-set­ting case,” which, if not chal­lenged, would have a long-term, neg­a­tive fi­nan­cial ef­fect on mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.

“It's very dif­fi­cult to bal­ance the hu­man in­ter­ests of Kevin's widow and her chil­dren with the fi­nan­cial and fidu­ciary re­spon­si­bil­i­ties we have to our res­i­dents,” Buf­falo Grove Vil­lage Man­ager Dane Bragg said. “It is def­i­nitely chal­leng­ing, and we have been sen­si­tive of that from day one. But some­times, you have to make a de­ci­sion that is not the most pop­u­lar po­si­tion to be in.”

When a mu­nic­i­pal­ity de­signs a pen­sion sys­tem, of­fi­cials should en­sure that the con­trac­tual agree­ments in cases of em­ployee dis­abil­ity and death are stated clearly, and they also “need to honor them,” said Jef­frey Brown, dean of the Gies Col­lege of Busi­ness for the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Ur­bana-Cham­paign.

While fa­tal­i­ties from cat­a­strophic in­juries suf­fered dur­ing a ser­vice call have none of the am­bi­gu­ity in­her­ent to can­cer deaths, Brown said pen­sion pol­icy con­tracts should be air­tight and elim­i­nate any lin­ger­ing ques­tions for fam­ily mem­bers about their ben­e­fits.

“I'm sym­pa­thetic to th­ese fam­i­lies be­cause pub­lic pen­sions have be­come a hot-but­ton po­lit­i­cal and fi­nan­cial is­sue,” Brown­said. “But a pen­sion pol­icy should be writ large with apromise that the city is ob­li­gated to ei­ther pay the pen­sion ben­e­fit or not.”

Af­ter the can­cer death of Lin­colnshire-River­woods Fire Pro­tec­tion District Lt. James Car­ney, 43, vil­lage of­fi­cials did not fight the Fire De­part­ment pen­sion board's de­ci­sion to grant his wid- owand their two young chil­dren a full pen­sion ben­e­fit, said Steve Shet­sky, a fel­low fire­fighter and mem­ber of the In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Fire Fight­ers Lo­cal 4224.

Car­ney, who was raised on his fam­ily's farm in Wadsworth, was di­ag­nosed with can­cer in 2013 af­ter med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tions de­ter­minedthe dis­ease­was the re­sult of re­peated ex­po­sure to car­cino­gens while he was out fight­ing fires, Shet­sky said.

Ac­cord­ing to court records, Car­ney, who had sought med­i­cal at­ten­tion af­ter he was hav­ing trou­ble sleep­ing and was cough­ing at night, was di­ag­nosed with peri­cardi­tis, which is the swelling of the tis­sue around the heart.

Af­ter a surgery was per­formed, doc­tors found a tu­mor between Car­ney's heart and the mem­brane en­clos­ing the heart. His fire­fight­ing ca­reer ended af­ter di­ag­no­sis and treat­ment for peri­car­dial mesothe­lioma, court records show.

WhileCar­ney­was granted li­neof-duty dis­abil­ity pen­sion ben­e­fits and his death was ruled as du­ty­based, of­fi­cials de­nied a re­quest that his fam­ily be cov­ered by a health in­sur­ance ben­e­fi­tun­derthe Pub­lic Safety Em­ployee Ben­e­fits Act, prompt­ing a Fe­bru­ary 2016 law­suit against the fire pro­tec­tion district.

A June de­ci­sion by the Illi­nois Ap­pel­lateCourt up­held a rul­ingby the Cir­cuit Court of Lake County that the Car­ney fam­ily is in­deed en­ti­tled to the line-of-duty dis­abil­ity pen­sion ben­e­fit.

“Every as­pect of this en­tire process has been ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for ev­ery­one in­volved,” Shet­sky said. “This seems to have be­come the new norm … mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties con­test­ing line-of-duty ben­e­fits. Theyriskedtheir lives for their com­mu­ni­ties in the short time they lived, and now, their loved ones face a bat­tle.”

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