Firefighter who died of cancer won't get benefits

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HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Stephanie Gunderson remembers erstwhile her hubby woke up 1 greeting asking if her backmost hurts each clip she gets retired of bed.

She told him nary and didn't deliberation thing of it. Capt. Will Gunderson had been a firefighter for the Houston Fire Department for astir 30 years truthful she thought possibly it was conscionable years of sleeping connected presumption mattresses that yet caught up to him.

But the symptom persisted. It got truthful atrocious that Gunderson would walk nights walking astir the occurrence presumption alternatively of sleeping.

He yet went to a doctor, who ordered an ultrasound, past an MRI, CAT scan and colonoscopy.

"I retrieve helium looked astatine maine due to the fact that I was successful determination with him successful the betterment room, and helium conscionable looked astatine maine and helium said, 'It's not good,'" Stephanie recalled. "We didn't know, but we had a feeling."

Gunderson was diagnosed with colon crab successful precocious 2018. He had country and thought helium was cancer-free a fewer months later, but past a fewer spots popped up connected his liver and helium underwent chemotherapy each implicit again.

After years of battling cancer, Gunderson died connected April 2. He was conscionable 49 years old.

The metropolis of Houston has not recognized Gunderson's decease arsenic a enactment of work decease contempt a 2019 Texas instrumentality that says colon crab successful firefighters is considered a work-related injury.

As a result, the metropolis is denying his wife's workers' compensation assertion for decease benefits pursuing her husband's decades of service.

"We can't inquire our men and women to spell retired determination and enactment their lives connected the line, get exposed to chartless materials, carcinogens, and past each of a sudden, erstwhile they travel down with cancer, we wantonness them," said Houston Professional Fire Fighters' Union President Marty Lancton.

Gunderson's widow said the symptom of losing her hubby is made worse knowing that cancer-preventing instrumentality the metropolis owns has been sitting successful a warehouse, alternatively of being installed astatine stations similar the 1 her hubby worked in.

13 Investigates learned 43 of the department's 93 Houston occurrence stations don't person a vent strategy that is designed to region oregon minimize harmful carcinogens from the stations wherever firefighters unrecorded and enactment around-the-clock.

The instrumentality connects to occurrence engines and captures the dense exhaust erstwhile vehicles are started truthful it doesn't permeate passim the station.

A caller firefighter's national survey recovered vents astatine 12 of the stations that bash person them aren't adjacent working.

"That is perfectly a origin for the accrued complaint of hazard of cancer," Lancton said. "The large woody is that the diesel exhaust that's coming retired of these occurrence engines are not lone successful bays close adjacent to the sleeping quarters, but also, astatine 1 point, it was adjacent to the crystal machines that you had for the bay, adjacent to the eating spot wherever the firefighters devour their meals. At the extremity of the day, you're surviving successful a hotbed, if you will. It's not going anywhere. It's conscionable resting connected each of the gear, each the equipment, each the tools, everything that you're fundamentally taking a bath in."

Station 13 successful the Oak Forest Community, wherever Gunderson worked for decades, does not person a vent system, according to the national survey.

"If the city's acrophobic astir the firemen, bash something. Make it happen. Protect them, assistance support them portion they're retired protecting the citizens," Stephanie Gunderson said.

'Things could've been done differently'

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said erstwhile helium archetypal took implicit the section successful 2017, nary of the occurrence stations had the required vent exhaust systems.

He said the section applied and qualified for a national assistance to acquisition the strategy for 77 of the department's 93 stations.

The remaining 16 stations didn't suffice for the assistance due to the fact that they were built aft 2003, erstwhile a nationalist manufacture modular was implemented requiring stations to incorporated exhaust systems into caller buildings.

Those 16 stations should person had the strategy installed portion they were being built, Peña said. He said astir were built anterior to him taking over, and added the ones built since helium arrived person the system.

"I don't cognize however that happens, but I tin archer you that, what our absorption has been since I got present successful 2017, is to guarantee that we're doing the close happening for our firefighters and gathering astatine slightest the minimum," Peña said. "The exhaust systems, the extractors, those are things that should person been completed 15 years agone and they hadn't been."

Lancton said stations are besides missing retired connected cancer-fighting extractors, "a fancy connection for a precise costly washer and dryer for your bunker gear."

Only 61 of the department's occurrence stations person the extractors and the national survey says 9 of them aren't working, including 1 that floods the presumption each clip it's used. Fire Department records amusement 5 unfastened enactment orders.

Lancton said occurrence cogwheel is designed to repel heat, not cancer-causing carcinogens. Whenever firefighters spell into an uncontrolled atmosphere, specified arsenic fume and carcinogen-laced environments portion responding to fires, those elements enactment connected the cogwheel each clip the firefighter uses oregon is adjacent it.

In an perfect world, Lancton said firefighters would person marque caller cogwheel each clip they respond to a fire, to guarantee immoderate carcinogens near down connected the cogwheel won't harm them the adjacent clip they enactment it connected to respond to a call, but that's not realistic.

The extractor systems are the adjacent champion solution.

In summation to the extractors, Peña said determination are different options disposable for firefighters if they're acrophobic astir carcinogens connected their gear.

Firefighters tin sojourn the organisation warehouse to power retired their cogwheel for a caller acceptable oregon docket their cogwheel to beryllium cleaned by different institution connected their days disconnected astatine nary complaint to them. The section volition besides prime up cogwheel successful request of cleaning from a firefighter's station.

Still, helium said the metropolis is moving to decorativeness installing extractors and expects each presumption volition person 1 by February 2022 if the metropolis tin travel up with an further $308,000 for needed plumbing and electrical upgrades.

The installation is excessively precocious to assistance Gunderson, but his widow hopes much is being done to enactment his colleagues, who became their household implicit the decades.

"The doc was precise adamant astir it being environment," she said. "They respire everything. I mean, I would cognize erstwhile helium would bring his cogwheel location - the smell, the smoke, it was conscionable truthful precise overwhelming."

Peña said the institution the metropolis works with to instal the washers tin implicit 1 oregon 2 a month.

He said portion of the occupation is the washers are commercialized grade, but the facilities are older and the plumbing and electrical can't grip the request of utilizing them, truthful installing the washers can't hap overnight.

It requires upgrading plumbing and electrical astatine the occurrence stations, which costs astir $15,000 to $20,000 per station.

There's $230,000 successful metropolis funds approved for the initiative, but the section needs an further $308,000 to implicit installation astatine the remaining 32 stations that inactive request the extractors.

"What frustrates maine is that we're having to play drawback up for things that were not done successful the past," Peña said. "I'm blaming the information that things could've been done otherwise wherever crab wouldn't beryllium 1 of the starring causes of decease successful firefighters, right? If 10, 15 years from now, crab is not the starring origin of decease successful firefighters, we would person done a bully happening today."

The Fire Fighters Foundation of Houston nonprofit spent $228,170 successful July 2019 to acquisition 29 extractors and different $118,950 3 months agone to acquisition 15 extractors.

"We can't beryllium present and accidental that we're really trying to bash thing to trim the risk, due to the fact that you're ne'er going to beryllium capable to destruct it erstwhile you intelligibly person occurrence stations that No. 1 don't person it and No. 2 the ones that have, don't work," Lancton said.

State changes work-related cancers for firefighters

While firefighters hold for known cancer-preventing instrumentality to beryllium installed, Stephanie Gunderson is inactive warring for the metropolis to admit that her husband's crab whitethorn person been linked to his enactment arsenic a archetypal responder.

"They don't care," Gunderson said.

Prior to the 2019 amendment to Texas' existing crab presumption instrumentality for archetypal responders, "a benignant of crab that whitethorn beryllium caused by vulnerability to heat, smoke, radiation, oregon a known oregon suspected carcinogen arsenic determined by the International Agency for Research connected Cancer," was considered work-related and covered by workers' compensation benefits.

But erstwhile the amendment went into effect successful 2019, it removed the portion of the instrumentality referring to the International Agency for Research connected Cancer database and added a much circumstantial database of cancers that are considered work-related. The caller database includes colon cancer.

Peña said nether the aged law, it was hard to find which types of cancers would beryllium covered.

In bid to suffice for cancer-related workers' compensation nether the caller law, Pena said the idiosyncratic would person to beryllium cancer-free erstwhile they were hired and beryllium diagnosed with crab portion connected the job.

He said the individual's superior occupation indispensable impact responding to fires oregon being exposed to carcinogens and they besides can't beryllium a smoker oregon joined to a smoker.

Peña admits determination are immoderate instances wherever firefighters are denied workers' compensation, but said he's not alert of the specifics for each lawsuit oregon wherefore they mightiness not conscionable the requirements.

In Gunderson's case, helium was diagnosed with colon crab anterior to the 2019 law.

Just 3 days earlier helium died, the longtime firefighter planned connected going successful to work. His woman joked that helium sometimes loved being astatine the occurrence presumption much than helium loved being astatine home. His colleagues astatine the presumption adjacent made a pact that they would each discontinue together.

Now without Gunderson, his woman said his chap firefighters are inactive honoring that pact and she hopes the metropolis volition bash much to grant their service.

"He's not the past 1 that's going to dice from crab oregon get crab being a fireman, but if they tin bash thing to assistance lessen that, delight bash it," she said.

For updates connected this report, travel ABC13 investigative newsman Ted Oberg connected Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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