Longform

A DEADLY LINE OF WORKFIREFIGHTER'S WIDOW TAKES UP FIGHT TO LINK JOB HAZARDS TO CANCER

Last summer, Joan Shafer sat in her husband's study, sifting through her "nostalgia file," the letters of condolences she had received in the month since her husband died of lung cancer. She looked at the dozen framed certificates on the wall, marking the training programs her husband, Dick Shafer, had completed in 21 years of service as a Phoenix firefighter. "I was just sitting there thinking it wasn't fair he was dead," she says.

That's when Shafer started her fight to prove that her husband's death of lung cancer at age 60 was caused by years of battling blazes.

"I've got to be able to put him to rest," she says. "And I can't. If we can show he died in the line of duty, then I can feel peace."

Shafer's fight isn't new. Other Phoenix firefighters have been convinced they developed cancer after years of swallowing smoke and slogging through carcinogenic chemicals. Many occupational health experts and a handful of preliminary studies point out that firefighters seem to develop cancer at a much higher rate than the rest of the population. The snag has been nailing down the medical evidence to prove it.

Shafer, who as a member of the Surprise Town Council is accustomed to bureaucratic battles, has pushed the issue further through the system than anyone else. She has argued in front of the state's Industrial Commission what is thought to be the first claim for death benefits due to a firefighting career.

"I just want the piece of paper that says he died of injuries in the line of duty," Shafer says. "The money isn't going to bring him back. It won't help my husband, and it's not going to stop there being an empty spot in my bed. It's a personal fight."

But Shafer hasn't won that piece of paper. Last month, an administrative law judge for the Industrial Commission handed down a ruling denying her claim, saying she "failed to meet burden of proof that her husband died as a consequence of his employment as a firefighter."

The commission noted that issue was clouded by the fact that Dick Shafer had been a cigarette smoker--although not for the last 20 years of his life.

Dick Shafer was an arson investigator when he retired from the Phoenix Fire Department in 1982, but he had spent most of his career actually fighting fires.

"He lived to fight fires," Joan Shafer says. "I never remember him saying no to anything when it concerned the fire department. He always referred to the city as ~`Mother Phoenix.' He said: `Mother Phoenix will take care of you.' So I just hope they can live up to his expectations."

Based on that expectation, Shafer plans to appeal the commission's ruling. She says even if cigarette smoking was a factor in her husband's cancer--he quit smoking in 1971--he was exposed to more smoke in a career of firefighting. "How they can say that he was exposed to carcinogens, and then turn around and deny the claim, I don't know," Shafer says.

Pat Cantelme, president of the United Phoenix Firefighters Association, says that, despite the ruling, Shafer's case should help the effort to prove the link between on-the-job exposure and cancer.

"What the judge basically says, the way I read it, is that [Dick Shafer's cancer] was job-related," Cantelme says. "That's the furthest it has gone."

Cantelme pointed out that the Industrial Commission's judge, Donald H. Bayles, while denying the claim, at least formally recognized the hazard of Dick Shafer's work environment by writing that Shafer "was exposed as a firefighter and as an investigator to smoke which contained carcinogens [and to] asbestos."

One difficulty of proving on-the-job exposure is that cancer can take a long time to develop. "If I walk into a fire and I get burned, you know the relationship," says Mike Bielecki, president of the Arizona firefighters' umbrella organization. "If I walk into a fire and am exposed to carcinogens and start to cough up blood 15 years from now, it's difficult to prove the relationship."

Other advocates for firefighters say the fact that Joan Shafer was able to get two medical experts to testify on her husband's behalf at the hearing was itself a feat. Gary Pykare, a Phoenix fire captain, couldn't. Pykare developed soft-tissue cancer when he was 37, and in 1989 planned to file a workers' compensation claim as an Arizona test case. Pykare says he's sure his cancer came from his exposure to pesticides and other hazardous materials while fighting fires, but he couldn't find medical experts to back his claim.

"We never had enough evidence to even file a claim," says Dennis Kavanaugh, Pykare's attorney. "We couldn't even legally meet the standard of filing a claim in front of the Industrial Commission."

Claiming exposure is one thing, but presenting enough medical evidence that cancer developed from that on-the-job exposure is another, says an opponent to Shafer's claim, Teri Thomson-Taylor.

"I know there's a lot of emotional appeal to that argument: `He's a firefighter. He was exposed to cancer,'" says Thomson-Taylor, a staff attorney for the State Compensation Fund, the City of Phoenix's insurance carrier. "Well, everybody is exposed to carcinogens every day."

But the firefighters say there's no comparison--although these days, firefighters take more precautions, such as wearing protective clothing and breathing masks both during fires and during the mop-up stage. "We used to swim almost in chemicals at fires," says Pykare. "We're 2,000 times safer than we were then."

Phoenix Fire Department officials also have instituted a detailed program to record exposures to dangerous chemicals when they do occur. The department is considered a leader nationally for its safety regulations.

Ten years ago, firefighters didn't know much about dangers posed by chemicals.

Fellow firefighter Benny Benitez recalls the days when he and Dick Shafer almost never wore more than short-sleeve shirts and jeans when they entered smoldering buildings as soon as fires were under control.

"We were there when it was still super-heated, when there were particles in the air," says Benitez, who testified on Joan Shafer's behalf before the commission. "We would be wearing helmets and no other safety gear whatsoever. We didn't know."

More than that kind of anecdotal evidence is needed to prove workers' compensation claims in Arizona, says Mike Bielecki. A handful of states have a law that "presumes" cancer in firefighters is job-related. Arizona doesn't, and there's no effort to change that, says Bielecki. Such a law would force cities to shell out more money in workers' compensation benefits. "Right now to change the law you would have to have evidence that we don't have yet," says Bielecki.

He credits Joan Shafer with being a pioneer on behalf of firefighters. "Shafer is an amazingly tenacious human being," says Bielecki. "She has no doubt that this is cancer-related. She is absolutely convinced of that. The weakness of the case is clearly the fact that he [Dick] smoked."

The cigarette smoking that helped to cloud Shafer's claim is just one factor that makes the attempt to link job-related exposure and cancer so difficult, according to Dr. James Schamadan, chief executive officer of the Scottsdale Memorial Hospital system. Schamadan is directing Arizona's first-ever study of cancer among its firefighters.

Twenty years ago, he says, about 80 percent of firefighters smoked. "While the firefighters were going in fighting burning buildings, they were all coming out and lighting up a cigarette," Schamadan says. "Your lung doesn't know the difference between the smoke you inhale from cigarette smoke and from a fire."

Schamadan says his study isn't geared only toward collecting benefits. In fact, he says the study is too small in scope to help prove that fighting fires leads to cancer. Data from the study will be useful in helping the state develop better safety procedures to protect firefighters, says Schamadan, but that won't be much help in Joan Shafer's own battle on behalf of her husband.

Shafer, a tall woman with a big voice and a big personality, calls herself a fighter.

She's proud of being the first woman elected to the town council in the west Valley hamlet of Surprise. The "old guard" in Surprise, she says, had scared off the two other women who considered running for public office in the past 30 years by accusing them of being prostitutes. She recalls telling the naysayers: "~If you want to accuse a 62-year-old woman of being a prostitute, that means I'm active. You need me."

As a politician herself, she admits it's ironic that she is suing the City of Phoenix. When she ran into members of the Phoenix City Council at a recent meeting, she says, one referred to her as "that woman who is suing us." Another remarked that she was an example of "why you don't want to make a fireman's widow mad."

"I just want the piece of paper that says he died of injuries in the line of duty."

"If I walk into a fire and am exposed to carcinogens and start to cough up blood 15 years from now, it's difficult to prove the relationship.