Dave Rowell’s shirt says it all: “Euclid Fire: Nobody Fights Alone.” When I meet Rowell, a captain in the Euclid Fire Department, we pull beat-up chairs across from each other in the duty office of Station 1, a functional-looking brick building on a strip of East 222nd Street. Outside the office, the bay doors are open. A Dalmatian sits out front of the station, plopped adorably between two red garage doors. Look quickly, and you’d miss that it’s a statue. Out back, firefighters wipe down one of their fire engines, which gleams red and chrome in the morning sun. As Rowell and I talk, they whirl up the siren and flash the lights.
Some firefighters are all too happy to regale you with stories of their daring. Rowell is not one of those. He tends toward the reserved, valiant sort, the kind of guy who is almost allergic to talking about himself. When we meet, he’s wearing the breast cancer awareness shirt, sold by his union. He speaks in a serious, understated hush. He is 47, with a bald head and corded arms that he crosses over his chest.
Looking at him, you’d have no idea that last year Rowell was diagnosed with colon cancer. One day, he was getting a routine colonoscopy. Four days later, Rowell’s doctor called. “You’ve got a polyp full of cancer,” she said.
As Rowell went in for appointments, a surgery and tests, his mind would often wander to the future his cancer put in jeopardy, picturing his daughter’s wedding and eventually retiring with his wife to a beach somewhere. “That’s what it’s all about,” he tells me. “My wife’s my best friend, and I want to make sure I enjoy my time with her.”
Cancer is the No. 1 cause of death in the fire service.
Running into burning buildings, dousing flaming cars, breathing smoke particles, mopping chemical spills and even revving diesel-burning trucks in the station exposes firefighters to a whole range of carcinogens over their careers, many of them associated with an increased risk of certain cancers.
A 2016 study by the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety examined nearly 30,000 major-city firefighters, and found that firefighters have a greater number of digestive, oral, respiratory and urinary cancer diagnoses and deaths than the general population. Firefighters get malignant mesothelioma, a rare cancer associated with asbestos exposure, at twice the normal rate. Last year, President Donald Trump signed legislation to create a Firefighter Cancer Registry, so that firefighter cancers can be further studied.
In January 2017, Ohio passed cancer presumption legislation, which regards firefighter cancer as an on-the-job injury. The legislation was called the Michael Louis Palumbo Jr. Act, after a Beachwood and Willowick firefighter who was diagnosed with brain cancer.
The law gave firefighters access to workers’ compensation in cancer cases, such as coverage of medical treatment and benefits for their families if they die. According to the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, as of Oct. 16, 2019, 142 individual firefighters have filed 155 claims under the Palumbo Act.
But some of those firefighters are running into a problem: the cities they serve are fighting their claim. Of the 109 claims that the BWC approved as meeting the standards of the Palumbo Act, 75 have been appealed by municipalities.
Rowell’s case is one of them. Last year, after his cancer diagnosis, he filed a Palumbo Act claim. The city of Euclid has been fighting it. The city’s lawyers have requested seven continuances, Rowell says, and have been digging through his service records.
Rowell is squirmy about the attention the case has brought. He filed his claim so that other firefighters won’t have to fight like he is. His cancer was minor, he says. He had surgery, but was spared the body-wracking pain of chemotherapy. He thinks he was lucky.
“That’s why it’s hard for me to do interviews like this, because I’m not the guy that had a huge issue. I put in tests, and was back to work in six weeks. I’m happy,” Rowell says, trying to look anywhere but my notepad. “It’s about the other guys. It’s a case I’m trying to build, so that someone else is taken care of. Because me? I’m fine. I’m glad to be back at work.”
The fight to get firefighters covered in Ohio started in 1994, as a group of firefighters sat around the table in an Akron fire station. Tim Kling, a lieutenant with the Akron Fire Department, had just been diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. Between surgeries and 53 chemotherapy appointments, he researched the disease that was trying to take his life.
Firefighters had higher cancer rates than normal, he had read. Around the table, the group tried to make a list of firefighters they knew who had cancer. “Pretty soon, I said, ‘Hang on.’ I got a paper towel, and I started writing names,” Kling says. “In 10 minutes, we had 45 names.”
After Kling retired in 1997, he began advocating for a cancer presumption law, like he’d seen in other states, but had little success.
Then, one day in 2008, Tom Patton, a Republican legislator from Cleveland’s southern suburbs, was walking the statehouse halls. Up strode a guy hauling two banker boxes full of documents. He introduced himself as Tim Kling. “I’m a firefighter, and I’m looking to talk to somebody about this big problem we’re having with firefighter cancer,” Kling said. “You got five minutes?”
Patton did. He found the evidence convincing. “I mean, everybody had done studies on it,” he says. Patton introduced a presumption law into the Senate, but it got stuck in the House. Patton tried to get a bill through three more times, all of them unsuccessful. Then, in 2015, Patton tried again.
This time, the moment was right. Awareness of firefighter cancer was growing, and the issue was beginning to receive media coverage across the state.
The bill got pushback from the Ohio Municipal League, which represents cities and towns. The League pointed to an actuarial analysis by the BWC, which said the bill could cost as much as $75 million a year.
Patton’s bill became the Palumbo Act, after News 5 Cleveland reporter Sarah Buduson aired a story in February 2016 highlighting Michael Palumbo’s fight with cancer. Palumbo, a father of five from Lake County and a Beachwood and Willowick firefighter, had been diagnosed with glioblastoma, but was ineligible for workers’ compensation benefits that would have allowed him to retire to spend time with his family.
Palumbo became the face of the bill. He got a standing ovation in the chambers, and stood beside Gov. John Kasich as he signed it into law in 2017. A few months later, Palumbo lost his battle with cancer.
The Palumbo Act says that a firefighter is presumed to have gotten cancer due to the job if they were assigned to hazardous duty for at least six years, and were exposed to substances the International Agency for Research on Cancer says are carcinogenic, such as asbestos or benzene. If they meet that standard, they can get benefits.
But the law also says that cities can try to rebut the presumption by showing that a firefighter might have had cancer before they worked for the city, or that a firefighter’s exposure to tobacco or other cancer-causing substances outside of work might have been the primary cause of the cancer.
Cities have used that appeals system like a blunt instrument. About 68% of the BWC-approved claims made by firefighters have been appealed by municipalities, according to BWC statistics. By contrast, the rate of appeal by employers of all BWC-approved claims over the last two years was only 6.2%.
Brian Davis, a firefighter for Norwich Township outside Columbus, died from cancer in June 2016. He was much beloved in Norwich, his wife Marney Davis says. There is a memorial stone with his name on it outside the fire department, and he had a day named after him at the county fair.
But that goodwill evaporated when Marney Davis filed a death claim under the Palumbo Act in July 2017. The BWC eventually approved it but the township, after exhausting its administrative appeals, took Davis and her two children to court to try to stop payments. The court case has dragged on for more than a year.
A judge recently decided that, since Davis died before the Palumbo Act went into effect, the BWC made the wrong decision in applying the presumption to Davis’ case. The next step may be a settlement or trial, but Marney Davis says she plans to keep fighting.
“It’s not about the money,” Davis says. “It’s about the principle that you told him to go into burning buildings to save your citizens.”
Even Chrissy Palumbo, Michael Palumbo’s widow, struggled to get death benefits from the cities of Beachwood and Willowick, where Michael worked. A settlement with Beachwood was announced this July and the Ohio Industrial Commission decided in her favor in the Willowick claim. When I met with Palumbo this October, at her house in Concord, she told me the two-year fight had been exhausting. She had stayed strong through it all, and was gracious as she ushered me into her basement to talk. Her adorable dog wouldn’t stop licking my face. But the drawn-out battle had worn her out. We spoke several times after that, but she was tired of giving quotes to reporters.
“At the end of the day, this is a man or woman that was fighting fires, that was doing a very difficult job to try and save lives and protect everybody else from the fire spreading,” says Patton. “When it’s time for the city to step up and do what they’re supposed to do, they’re turning their heads the other way.”
After our interview, Rowell takes me on a tour of the station. We see the portraits on the wall, all 81 members of the department, from the chief on down, smiling from a poster. We see the officers’ dorm, about the size of a large closet, just a cot with starched-white sheets and a computer. Behind a glass door is a hallway of offices.
“Down there is the chiefs,” Rowell says, standing with his hand on the handle. “I don’t know if you want to…”
“I’m good,” I say.
“The assistant chief is the one that’s researching my runs and stuff,” Rowell says.
The city is looking for something to contest that Rowell’s 23 years on the job contributed to his cancer. The fire department is reviewing the run records of fires Rowell has fought, which adds up to about 120 blazes, not to mention exposures to asbestos in the station basement, diesel fumes and live training burns, for which Rowell has acted as a lighter. The city is looking for other grounds too. They have said Rowell is a smoker, though he is not. They have even said Rowell is obese, a risk factor for colon cancer, though he certainly doesn’t look it.
“In the long run, I’m hoping it’s not personal, it’s just business. I’m personally cordial to the mayor, to the law director. I just saw [the mayor] the other day. Nothing’s personal here,” Rowell says. “It’s your business, and this is my business. I disagree with it, of course.”
Even so, Rowell says, “It’s hard not to take it personal.”
Rowell got into firefighting while he was studying physical therapy at Cleveland State University. But while shadowing at a hospital, he realized the work wasn’t for him. He wanted something more active. Two of his friends encouraged him to take the fire test, and he found that he enjoyed the gung-ho, physical nature of the job. When he was looking for a department, Euclid felt like a natural fit. His grandfather and father had grown up there. “It was the best choice I ever made, besides getting married to my wife,” Rowell says.
Though it arrived suddenly, his cancer battle was brief. After his diagnosis last April, Rowell had surgery under the care of Dr. Meagan Costedio, a colorectal surgeon at University Hospitals Ahuja Medical Center.
The doctors removed a foot of his intestines and 40 lymph nodes — “I didn’t realize how many lymph nodes you have in your body,” says Rowell — and then there was a waiting period, to see if the tests would come back clear. That, Rowell says, was the roughest time for him and his family. His daughter, who is 17, is about to graduate high school, and his son, who is 19, is just beginning college. “The first thing you think of is: I want to make sure I walk my daughter down the aisle one day,” Rowell says.
Luckily, the tests came back clear, and by June 22, 2018, Rowell was back at work. He had taken out a special health insurance policy for firefighters the year before, which covered some of the medical costs. The Palumbo Act claim, which he filed on July 26, 2018, was to help cover the rest, and recoup his sick time.
The BWC approved Rowell’s claim, but then the city appealed. At the hearing on the appeal, the district hearing officer ruled in Rowell’s favor again. The city has filed another appeal.
Mayor Kirsten Holzheimer-Gail declined to comment for this story, saying she does not comment on personnel matters. She referred Cleveland Magazine to Meghan Delaney, a lawyer representing the city. Delaney did not return a message seeking comment.
After months of fighting for his claim, Rowell decided to go public. “[I wanted] to make sure that people actually know what’s going on,” Rowell says.
He showed up at a City Council meeting in September. He was nervous, he says. “I’m not that proficient in public speaking.” But his fellow firefighters had his back. About 40 of them showed up to support him, lining the walls of the council chamber as Rowell got up to read his statement. News 5 Cleveland’s cameras were there to record it.
“I am deeply ashamed and disappointed of the way the city has treated me as a number, and not as a human being,” Rowell told the council and the mayor.
After the meeting, Buduson cornered Holzheimer-Gail, and asked why the city was fighting Rowell’s claim.
“We are not fighting it,” Holzheimer-Gail said. “It’s been under review for their process as we do with all claims.”
“Um, it’s being appealed,” said Buduson.
“I thank you for your interest in being here,” the mayor said. Then she walked away.
A day after I sat down with Rowell, the Ohio House Insurance Committee, down in Columbus, met in its committee room. From Cleveland, I watched a livestream of the hearing on House Bill 330, a bill that could fix problems like Rowell’s.
Karen Turano, a Columbus-area workers’ compensation attorney, comes to the podium to speak in favor of the bill on behalf of the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters and the Ohio Association for Justice, the trial attorney association.
This bill is personal, she says. Her husband is a lieutenant in the Columbus department. At one point, 10TV reported that 130 firefighters, 9% of the Columbus department, had cancer.
“He has been in that capacity for 20 years. He started at age 16 riding auxiliary, and he volunteered at New Concord,” Turano tells the committee. “So with regards to his exposure as a firefighter, it’s been over 20 years. Actually, 26.”
As an attorney, Turano represents almost 60 firefighters who have had job-related cancers. Rowell is one of her clients. Of those, about four have made it through the Palumbo Act process without a city fighting them.
Those appeals frequently use questionable medical reports from nonexpert doctors, Turano says, running through a list of examples culled from a spreadsheet she keeps. In the case of one firefighter (Rowell, she later confirmed), a doctor claimed that he was obese, even though he has a 32-inch waist — “Thinner than me!” Turano exclaims — and a body mass index of 25.8. Another report claimed a firefighter’s melanoma, under an area normally covered by a shirt, was caused by exposure to the sun. Yet another claimed that exposure to secondhand smoke as a child was the primary risk factor for a 40-year veteran firefighter’s bladder cancer. “These are the things that I am facing in a hearing, and arguing against,” Turano tells the committee.
Cities also argue that specific fires can’t have caused a cancer, Patton tells me. “It’s like asking a guy who got lung cancer from smoking, ‘What pack of cigarettes did you buy that you think did you in?’ ” says Patton.
Cities are fighting, despite the fact that the costs of the Palumbo Act have been much lower than projected. The act’s original opponents cited a possible cost as high as $75 million. As of March, a total of more than $2 million in benefits have been paid out.
The main reason cities are putting up a fight, Patton says, is because they’re worried about their workers’ compensation premiums shooting up. HB 330, introduced by Patton, is intended to make sure they won’t, by changing the pot of money from which firefighter claims are paid.
In Ohio, the workers’ compensation fund is managed by the state government. It is one of only four states in the country to have a state-monopoly system, and, of those four, it is by far the largest. Employers, in essence, purchase an insurance policy for their workers from the state by paying premiums.
The system is doing well. According to the BWC’s annual reports and a market analysis by insurance industry credit rating agency A.M. Best, the number of claims and the cost of premiums has been going down.
In 2000, the BWC allowed 260,000 injury claims. In 2018, it allowed 85,000. That reduction is due to investments in safer workplaces, fewer manufacturing jobs and, as the Cleveland-based think tank Policy Matters Ohio has pointed out, employers increasingly classifying their workers as independent contractors. The fund’s investments have also seen healthy returns. From fiscal year 2018 to 2019, the fund posted a $1 billion surplus.
The BWC has handed that extra money back to employers five times since 2013, a total of $5.7 billion. That includes a round of payments this September, when the BWC cut $1.5 billion worth of checks. Norwich Township, where Davis worked, got $117,502 back. Willowick, where Palumbo worked, got $122,886. Euclid, where Rowell works, got $400,007.
HB 330 would take money from the BWC’s surplus fund and use it to pay Palumbo Act benefits, instead of paying them from an individual employer’s pool of money. That way, the employer’s premiums would stay low, and the firefighter’s cancer claim would still be paid. Patton hopes the end result will be fewer cities fighting their own cancer-stricken firefighters over dollars and cents. “I think that the cities will be a whole lot less punitive,” says Patton.
Patton introduced HB 330 in September. As of this writing, it has gotten support from the firefighters union, the trial lawyers’ association and the Ohio Township Association. No opposition has yet materialized. The Ohio Municipal League, which originally opposed the Palumbo Act, is neutral on the bill, says Ashley Brewster, director of communications. If it gets out of the insurance committee, the bill will have to pass the full House, the Senate and then be signed by the governor. Patton hopes that this time, it won’t be a 10-year fight.
“I muse [about] the fact that we have license plates that say, ‘Ohio, first in aviation.’ You know, what we should title it is ‘Ohio, 44th in everything else,’ ” says Patton. “Because we’re so slow to respond to stuff like this. It’s a shame.”
Even if HB 330 flies at hyper-speed through the statehouse, it may be too late to apply it to Rowell’s case. But he hopes that, at some point, he and other firefighters won’t have to keep fighting for their cancer claims.
“Somehow, the state’s got to do something,” Rowell says. “We have this law [the Palumbo Act] that was passed. And I get it. It’s local municipalities. But you can’t just ignore the state law.”
About halfway through our interview, Rowell finally uncrosses his arms. But he’s still not one to talk about himself. Now that his tests show he’s cancer-free, it’s been easier on his family, he says. His wife has stopped worrying so much.
“She knows I’m going to meetings [about the claim], and everything’s fine now, so she doesn’t worry,” he says. Still, though, the experience is difficult to talk about.
“This,” he gestures between us, “is kind of hard for me.”
I understand, I say.
“No,” Rowell says.
I do not.
“It’s hard for me because I’m fine,” he repeats. “The guy that’s suffering right now, I just want to make sure we build a case so that he’s taken care of.”
As Rowell is fighting for his claim, another firefighter in the department has been diagnosed with throat cancer. As Rowell and I sit in the station talking, his coworker is getting a cocktail of chemotherapy drugs and radiation. “Today is going to be a really tough day for him,” says Rowell.
Rowell’s claim, he says, isn’t about him. He filed it to hatchet his way through, so that his brother and sister firefighters in Euclid who come down with cancer will be able to file their claims without facing a lengthy and combative appeals process.
As of early November, Rowell is still fighting. He intends to continue to, for as long as it takes.
“I’m stubborn. I don’t give up. And I’m not going anywhere,” Rowell says. “I will probably last longer than [the city] will. Whether they’re in office or not, I’ll last longer. I’ll be there. I’ll be at every meeting.”
The reason for Rowell’s fight is right there on his shirt: “Euclid Fire: Nobody Fights Alone.”
“That’s why I’m doing it. Right now, it’s about him and who follows him,” Rowell says. “Because he’s not going to be the last one.”