After nearly two decades of working to get protections for members who get sick on the job, the Arkansas Professional Fire Fighters (APFF) have successfully lobbied for the passage of a new law that will provide line-of-duty death benefits to fire fighters who die of cancer caused by on-the-job exposure. The law is retroactive three years.

“This is a good day for our members,” says APFF President Ed Jaros. “The Arkansas Professional Fire Fighters worked hard for the passage of this bill, and it was well worth the effort. It will go a long way toward giving peace of mind to members worried about contracting cancer.”  

Springdale, AR Local 3007 member Bud Planchon, a 25-year veteran fire fighter, was diagnosed in 2009 with colon cancer that eventually spread to his liver. He died in April 2014.

“He was the first member we had whose doctor said, ‘Yes, you got this because of on-the-job exposure,’” says APFF Legislative Director Wade Marshall. “It was his wish that future fire fighters who contracted occupational diseases including cancer receive some kind of protection. As this also has long been a goal of the APFF, we were determined to make it happen.”

Past attempts to pass presumptive legislation were met with serious opposition from the Arkansas Municipal League, the Workers’ Compensation Board and some anti-worker lawmakers.

Rather than pass a presumptive disability law, the APFF proposed legislation that would provide the same benefits already in place for other line-of-duty deaths to fire fighters who die as a result of job-related cancer. 

The APFF wrote HB 1274 to provide families of fire fighters who die as a result of cancers proven to be more common in fire fighters than the average population with $150,000 in benefits, plus college tuition for any surviving children. Representative Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville), a longtime fire fighter supporter, agreed to be the bill’s chief sponsor and Senator Jon Woods (R-Springdale) sponsored the legislation in the senate.

However, while in committee, some lawmakers refused to send the bill to the full House unless the word “presumption” was removed from the language. As a compromise, HB 1274 was amended to remove the word, but included the creation of a review panel. The panel will include two professional fire fighters, two volunteer fire fighters, a fire chief, an oncologist and a citizen, all to be appointed by the governor. The panel will review each claim and award the benefit to the family or beneficiaries.

“Moving forward, we approached this bill a lot like a political campaign,” says Marshall. “We developed coalitions and got our message out through both traditional and new media. As the word got around, momentum for HB 1274 just grew.”

The bill passed the House and the Senate and was later signed by Governor Asa Hutchinson. The bill is retroactive three years, so Bud Planchon’s family and a few others will be eligible to receive the benefit.

The APFF now hopes to make progress on preventing occupational diseases by passing legislation requiring mandatory exhaust ventilation systems for firehouses and industrial turnout washing machines to remove carcinogens, among other protections.