Volunteer status at center of Wash. FFs’ fight for brain cancer coverage
Officials say Firefighter Ron Cato fails to qualify for assistance due to the minimum full-time service requirment
By Ellen Dennis
SPOKANE, Wash. — Ron Cato spent 30 years of his life marching into burning buildings, rescuing people from smoldering rubble and speeding down streets in a fire engine, sirens blaring.
He did it to help people on what were sometimes the worst days of their lives.
“People have really bad days,” he said. “I don’t like to see that. I like to help them have a better day. I’ve had lots of times where I’ve been able to do that. And some days they’ve died. It goes hot and cold.”
With months left to live, the firefighter has one final mission.
In September, he was diagnosed with stage 4 glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer often linked to the smoke and chemicals to which firefighters are regularly exposed. A doctor told Cato he has 18 months to live.
Cato, of Spokane Valley, has a 30-year tenure serving as a firefighter in Eastern Washington. In that time, he responded to more than 30 structure fires, more than 100 wildland fires and countless medical emergencies.
For decades, he volunteered at Spokane County Fire Districts 8 and 10. Last year, he got a full-time job at Pend Oreille County Fire District 2.
When Cato was diagnosed with cancer, his family filed an insurance claim with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries on his behalf. But because Cato only served for one year as a paid firefighter, he doesn’t qualify for financial help under current state law. The State Board of Volunteer Firefighters does not offer insurance coverage for what are called presumptive illnesses — diseases such as cancer that are medically assumed to be caused in the workplace.
State law says a firefighter must serve a minimum of 10 years working a full-time paid position to qualify for L&I assistance to treat cancer caused by their work. The current legislation does not offer insurance benefits for volunteers who switch to career service unless they’ve served in a career position for that 10-year minimum.
Cato’s claim is currently being processed by L&I, according to his son, Chris Cato. The family is not confident they will get help from the state due to the current laws.
‘Bearing the millions of dollars’
State L&I officials were unable to comment specifically on the Cato family’s claim due to legal constraints by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. The agency looks at the facts of every claim independently, said Brenda Heilman, deputy assistant director of insurance for L&I.
“If a worker files a claim and doesn’t meet the presumption, L&I then looks to see if they qualify for an occupational disease claim,” Hellman said.
When Chris Cato found out about the lack of coverage for volunteer firefighters, he began doing research and calling state lawmakers.
What he found is that some other states have laws on the books that outline presumptive illness benefits for volunteer firefighters, including Idaho and California.
“He has served 30 years, and this is how the state recognizes his service,” Chris Cato said about his father. “He’s not looking for recognition — so don’t take it like that. But he’s thinking, ‘If this has happened to me, who else has it happened to who has just given up?’ They will end up bearing the millions of dollars of financial burden, all because they stood up and said, ‘I’ll help.’ ”
When Chris Cato began calling state legislators, they picked up the phone. Some even sat down to meet with him face-to-face. Cato wants to see state law changed on his father’s behalf to cover volunteers diagnosed with presumptive occupational illnesses.
“My father knows he’s going to die because of this,” he said. “He understands that. If he can serve the public one last time by helping to get this law changed to include volunteer firefighters, then he feels like it’s OK to die to get this done.”
State Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D- Spokane, said he was intrigued by the Cato family’s story. As chair of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee, he said he would like to see the law get changed. He mentioned one idea could be to enact a parity law, where the state views two or three years of volunteer service as one year of career service.
“I think it deserves consideration,” Riccelli said, “with how important our volunteer workforce is.”
Half of the firefighting workforce
Chris Cato, EMS division chief at Pend Oreille County Fire District 2, also contacted fire officials around the state about his father’s situation.
In Washington state, volunteers make up roughly half of the firefighting workforce. Of about 20,000 firefighters, half are volunteers and half are career firefighters.
In rural parts of the state, volunteers make up the majority of the fire service.
Mason County Fire District 16 Chief Matthew Welander said most fire departments outside of the Interstate 5 corridor or east of the Cascades simply do not have the tax base to pay for a fully staffed fire department.
“It’s all of these people that live in farming areas — that live in the woods, where all your food comes from, and the wood for your homes and the meat on your table,” Welander said.
“I think that L&I should cover all volunteers because the firefighters are trained to the level of a firefighter. There’s no statutory or certification for statutory versus a paid firefighter.”
Along with Eastern Washington, volunteers are the backbone of the fire service on much of the state’s Olympic Peninsula. At Quilcene Fire and Rescue, there are roughly a dozen volunteers and only six paid firefighters.
Quilcene Fire Rescue Chief Tim McKern said he thinks the state should talk about changing the law.
” The Legislature probably needs to take a look at it,” he said. “There may be legislative action to talk about presumptive diseases.”
Ron Cato’s story has also drawn the attention of state fire service unions. The Washington State Council of Fire Fighters has been working with L&I to research diseases caused by firefighters, said A.J. Johnson, a legislative liaison for the council. Johnson said the union would support changes to the law.
“Volunteers deserve to be taken care of,” Johnson said. “They’ve served their community for however many years. If they have an illness or disease caused by their volunteer work, they should absolutely be taken care of.”
‘Something to respect them’
State Rep. Dan Griffey, R- Mason County, has experience serving as a volunteer and career firefighter. He said he supports changing L&I law to support volunteer firefighters, but the state needs to find money to pay for it, because L&I is an expensive program.
“There’s not a couple billion dollars in a trust fund sitting out there, so pulling the trigger on a solution is harder,” Griffey said. “I don’t want to see this happen again. I know I can speak for the rest of the Legislature that they don’t want to tolerate such a failure again.”
Griffey added he does not see any difference between volunteer and career firefighters, and that they deserve equal respect.
“We can’t make the family whole again, but we can try to do something to respect them,” he said. “It just breaks my heart. Could you imagine putting in that many years, finally getting a career position and then having this happen?”
Ron Cato’s family organized an online fundraiser to help offset his medical costs. The 72-year-old said he appreciated seeing the community show up for him.
“They know me because I’ve been around a long time,” he said. “And they do donate. You can’t believe how happy that makes me feel.”
Todd Ulrich spent thousands of hours serving in the fire service alongside Ron Cato.
“Ron cares about everyone,” Ulrich said. “He was and is compassionate, with patients, friends, fire personnel, family. (He) was always challenging you to go a little further in medical treatments and firefighting.”
Just like the people he dedicated his life to helping, Ron Cato said he now has good days and bad days with the cancer treatment.
But it has all been worth it, in the backaches and the 80-hour weeks and all those years of smoke stinging his eyes, all the close calls and even the heartbreaks.
It will be even more worth it if he can help to protect future generations of volunteers.
“People who are volunteer firefighters are doing that on their own accord. They’re doing that to help their community,” he said. “That’s really cool. Think of how many volunteer firefighters saved the state this year. These kids are too darn important to go through what I’ve been through.”