HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) — Stephanie Gunderson remembers when her husband woke up one morning asking if her back hurts every time she gets out of bed.
She told him no and didn’t think anything of it. Capt. Will Gunderson had been a firefighter for the Houston Fire Department for nearly 30 years so she thought maybe it was just years of sleeping on station mattresses that finally caught up to him.
But the pain persisted. It got so bad that Gunderson would spend nights walking around the fire station instead of sleeping.
He finally went to a doctor, who ordered an ultrasound, then an MRI, CAT scan and colonoscopy.
“I remember he looked at me because I was in there with him in the recovery room, and he just looked at me and he said, ‘It’s not good,'” Stephanie recalled. “We didn’t know, but we had a feeling.”
Gunderson was diagnosed with colon cancer in late 2018. He had surgery and thought he was cancer-free a few months later, but then a few spots popped up on his liver and he underwent chemotherapy all over again.
After years of battling cancer, Gunderson died on April 2. He was just 49 years old.
The city of Houston has not recognized Gunderson’s death as a line of duty death despite a 2019 Texas law that says colon cancer in firefighters is considered a work-related injury.
As a result, the city is denying his wife’s workers’ compensation claim for death benefits following her husband’s decades of service.
“We can’t ask our men and women to go out there and put their lives on the line, get exposed to unknown materials, carcinogens, and then all of a sudden, when they come down with cancer, we abandon them,” said Houston Professional Fire Fighters’ Union President Marty Lancton.
Gunderson’s widow said the pain of losing her husband is made worse knowing that cancer-preventing equipment the city owns has been sitting in a warehouse, instead of being installed at stations like the one her husband worked in.
13 Investigates learned 43 of the department’s 93 Houston fire stations don’t have a vent system that is designed to remove or minimize harmful carcinogens from the stations where firefighters live and work around-the-clock.
The device connects to fire engines and captures the heavy exhaust when vehicles are started so it doesn’t permeate throughout the station.
A recent firefighter’s union survey found vents at 12 of the stations that do have them aren’t even working.
“That is absolutely a cause for the increased rate of risk of cancer,” Lancton said. “The big deal is that the diesel exhaust that’s coming out of these fire engines are not only in bays right next to the sleeping quarters, but also, at one point, it was next to the ice machines that you had for the bay, next to the eating place where the firefighters eat their meals. At the end of the day, you’re living in a hotbed, if you will. It’s not going anywhere. It’s just resting on all of the gear, all the equipment, all the tools, everything that you’re basically taking a bath in.”
Station 13 in the Oak Forest Community, where Gunderson worked for decades, does not have a vent system, according to the union survey.
“If the city’s concerned about the firemen, do something. Make it happen. Protect them, help protect them while they’re out protecting the citizens,” Stephanie Gunderson said.
‘Things could’ve been done differently’
Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said when he first took over the department in 2017, none of the fire stations had the required vent exhaust systems.
He said the department applied and qualified for a federal grant to purchase the system for 77 of the department’s 93 stations.
The remaining 16 stations didn’t qualify for the grant because they were built after 2003, when a national industry standard was implemented requiring stations to incorporate exhaust systems into new buildings.
Those 16 stations should have had the system installed while they were being built, Peña said. He said most were built prior to him taking over, and added the ones built since he arrived have the system.
“I don’t know how that happens, but I can tell you that, what our focus has been since I got here in 2017, is to ensure that we’re doing the right thing for our firefighters and meeting at least the minimum,” Peña said. “The exhaust systems, the extractors, those are things that should have been completed 15 years ago and they hadn’t been.”
Lancton said stations are also missing out on cancer-fighting extractors, “a fancy word for a very expensive washer and dryer for your bunker gear.”
Only 61 of the department’s fire stations have the extractors and the union survey says nine of them aren’t working, including one that floods the station every time it’s used. Fire Department records show five open work orders.
Lancton said fire gear is designed to repel heat, not cancer-causing carcinogens. Whenever firefighters go into an uncontrolled atmosphere, such as smoke and carcinogen-laced environments while responding to fires, those elements stay on the gear every time the firefighter uses or is near it.
In an ideal world, Lancton said firefighters would have brand new gear every time they respond to a fire, to ensure any carcinogens left behind on the gear won’t harm them the next time they put it on to respond to a call, but that’s not realistic.
The extractor systems are the next best solution.
In addition to the extractors, Peña said there are other options available for firefighters if they’re concerned about carcinogens on their gear.
Firefighters can visit the distribution warehouse to switch out their gear for a new set or schedule their gear to be cleaned by another company on their days off at no charge to them. The department will also pick up gear in need of cleaning from a firefighter’s station.
Still, he said the city is working to finish installing extractors and expects every station will have one by February 2022 if the city can come up with an additional $308,000 for needed plumbing and electrical upgrades.
The installation is too late to help Gunderson, but his widow hopes more is being done to support his colleagues, who became their family over the decades.
“The doctor was very adamant about it being environment,” she said. “They breathe everything. I mean, I would know when he would bring his gear home – the smell, the smoke, it was just so very overwhelming.”
Peña said the company the city works with to install the washers can complete one or two a month.
He said part of the problem is the washers are commercial grade, but the facilities are older and the plumbing and electrical can’t handle the demand of using them, so installing the washers can’t happen overnight.
It requires upgrading plumbing and electrical at the fire stations, which costs about $15,000 to $20,000 per station.
There’s $230,000 in city funds approved for the initiative, but the department needs an additional $308,000 to complete installation at the remaining 32 stations that still need the extractors.
“What frustrates me is that we’re having to play catch up for things that were not done in the past,” Peña said. “I’m blaming the fact that things could’ve been done differently where cancer wouldn’t be one of the leading causes of death in firefighters, right? If 10, 15 years from now, cancer is not the leading cause of death in firefighters, we would have done a good thing today.”
The Fire Fighters Foundation of Houston nonprofit spent $228,170 in July 2019 to purchase 29 extractors and another $118,950 three months ago to purchase 15 extractors.
“We can’t sit here and say that we’re actually trying to do something to reduce the risk, because you’re never going to be able to eliminate it when you clearly have fire stations that No. 1 don’t have it and No. 2 the ones that have, don’t work,” Lancton said.
State changes work-related cancers for firefighters
While firefighters wait for known cancer-preventing equipment to be installed, Stephanie Gunderson is still fighting for the city to acknowledge that her husband’s cancer may have been linked to his work as a first responder.
“They don’t care,” Gunderson said.
Prior to the 2019 amendment to Texas’ existing cancer presumption law for first responders, “a type of cancer that may be caused by exposure to heat, smoke, radiation, or a known or suspected carcinogen as determined by the International Agency for Research on Cancer,” was considered work-related and covered by workers’ compensation benefits.
But when the amendment went into effect in 2019, it removed the part of the law referring to the International Agency for Research on Cancer list and added a more specific list of cancers that are considered work-related. The new list includes colon cancer.
Peña said under the old law, it was difficult to determine which types of cancers would be covered.
In order to qualify for cancer-related workers’ compensation under the new law, Pena said the individual would have to be cancer-free when they were hired and be diagnosed with cancer while on the job.
He said the individual’s primary job must involve responding to fires or being exposed to carcinogens and they also can’t be a smoker or married to a smoker.
Peña admits there are some instances where firefighters are denied workers’ compensation, but said he’s not aware of the specifics for each case or why they might not meet the requirements.
In Gunderson’s case, he was diagnosed with colon cancer prior to the 2019 law.
Just three days before he died, the longtime firefighter planned on going in to work. His wife joked that he sometimes loved being at the fire station more than he loved being at home. His colleagues at the station even made a pact that they would all retire together.
Now without Gunderson, his wife said his fellow firefighters are still honoring that pact and she hopes the city will do more to honor their service.
“He’s not the last one that’s going to die from cancer or get cancer being a fireman, but if they can do something to help lessen that, please do it,” she said.