Cancer Claims Alaska FF, Family Gets Benefits

Thirteen years after exposure to thick, black smoke from burning wires, and six months after firefighter Andy Mullen's initial workers' compensation claim, the Municipality of Anchorage has agreed that Mullen's cancer was caused by his work, entitling his widow, 19-year-old daughter and 10-year-old twin daughters to additional benefits, the Anchorage Fire Department said Tuesday.

Mullen, 45, succumbed late Monday night to the disease that spread from his kidneys to his brain and eventually his lungs, which began to fill with fluid last week, Fire Chief Mark Hall said during a press conference Tuesday at Fire Station 1 in downtown Anchorage.

"You can imagine the loss of a brother, and I'll leave it at that," Hall said.

The city's claims adjustors initially disputed Mullen's workers' compensation claim, but Mullen and the city reached an agreement just 12 days before he died.

"I felt like ... he was sticking around to see it done, to see that his family was taken care of," said Mullen's attorney Eric Croft, a former Democratic state legislator.

According to Croft, the case was the first test of Alaska's 2-year-old "firefighter presumption" law, which says firefighters are eligible for workers' compensation benefits if they develop certain types of cancer after documented exposure to known carcinogens while on the job.

Mullen joined the fire department in 1997 as a "probie," a nickname for rookie firefighters on a probationary period, said Mullen's friend Capt. Mike Stumbaugh, who met the outgoing Mullen in 1995 as the two were going through the fire academy.

Mullen kept a diary that included entries for his fire calls, Stumbaugh said.

"That diary really made his case," he said.

It was a seemingly routine call just three months into Mullen's nearly 14-year career that eventually killed him, Stumbaugh, Hall and firefighters' union president Rod Harris said Tuesday.

Mullen and firefighter Doug Schrage responded to a brush fire near Ship Creek one morning in May 1997, Harris said. Firefighters do not typically wear air masks for brush fires, Harris said, and thick smoke from burning wires surrounded the firefighters when the wind changed direction.

"He says in his diary, 'I had to brush my teeth three times to get the taste out of my mouth,' " Croft said.

Thirteen years later, in April 2010, Mullen went to a doctor complaining of blurred vision. When glasses failed to help, further testing revealed a brain tumor, which was traced back to renal cancer in Mullen's kidneys.

When the coating on electrical wires burns, it often releases carcinogens that have been specifically linked to renal cancer, according to a medical opinion from Dr. Tee Guidotti, a Maryland-based occupational health consultant, hired by Croft for Mullen's workers' compensation claim.

It wasn't easy convincing the city and its claims adjustors that Mullen's illness was directly related to exposure while on the job, Croft said.

"They fought it a lot of the way," he said. "(It was) six months of trying to prove to them that this firefighter, who met the presumption, that his cancer was work related."

Mullen's diary is what made the difference, Croft said.

The city and its claims adjustors, NovaPro Risk Solutions, followed normal procedures when looking at requirements for workers' compensation claims, city attorney Dennis Wheeler said in an interview Tuesday night. The city has an obligation to its taxpayers, Wheeler said.

"Sometimes that takes longer than anybody wants, but we have to do our due diligence," Wheeler said.

Mullen's death is the first for an Anchorage firefighter in the line of duty since Chuck Whitethorn died in a backdraft explosion in 1976.

An honor guard procession Friday will carry Mullen's ashes from Station 1 to the Dena'Ina Civic and Convention Center, where a memorial will be held with full honors for a death in the line of duty. Gov. Sean Parnell has also agreed to order flags to half-staff Friday.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service