Longtime firefighter ‘has answered his last call’

The Roanoke Times | Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The death of a career Roanoke firefighter and paramedic last week may become the city’s second fatality in the line of duty since 2009, and Roanoke officials are working to see that the man’s wife and two children receive benefits entitled to fallen firefighters under Virginia law.

A multidepartmental honor guard representing Roanoke, Roanoke County and Salem accompanies the hearse carrying the body of longtime Roanoke firefighter and paramedic David Palmer to a graveside service at Cedar Lawn Memorial Park in Roanoke on Monday afternoon. Photo by Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

A multidepartmental honor guard representing Roanoke, Roanoke County and Salem accompanies the hearse carrying the body of longtime Roanoke firefighter and paramedic David Palmer to a graveside service at Cedar Lawn Memorial Park in Roanoke on Monday afternoon. Photo by Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

David Palmer , 54, died Friday after a nearly two-year battle with rectal cancer. If approved by a state panel, Palmer would be the first — or possibly second — Roanoke line of duty death since December 2009, when former Battalion Chief William Obenchain, 57, died of cancer three years after he retired. The state is considering awarding line of duty benefits to the family of former Battalion Chief Bobbie Slayton, who died of a stroke in December at age 66, five months after he retired.

If Palmer ‘s death ends up being considered a line of duty fatality, his wife, Billie Jean “B.J.” Palmer , will receive a $100,000 death benefit from the state. She also would be covered by new state-funded health insurance for life. The couple’s two children, who both have autism, would be covered at least until they are 21 years old.

Palmer was buried Monday in a service that had a procession of fire and rescue equipment from the region. Dozens of firefighters, rescue workers, family and friends attended.

He was diagnosed with cancer in September 2009, his wife said. He battled the disease with chemotherapy and radiation, and had been in a wheelchair since shortly after his diagnosis.

B.J. Palmer , a former paramedic until a car wreck left her injured in 1987, said she knew the dangers of a firefighting career.

“I was terrified of him being in the fire department,” she said. “You just always fear that phone call in the middle of the night.”

Scrapes, bruises, even burns were to be expected in that line of work, she said.

“But I never thought about cancer.”

An increased risk of cancer is a hazard of firefighting, according to studies.

“It’s an assumption that you take on when you sign the paper and you take the oath, that you’re probably going to contract cancer,” said Roanoke Fire-EMS Capt. Chris Trussler. “It’s just part of the job.”

Firefighters are exposed to carcinogens, including toxic benzene and formaldehyde, from burning buildings and furniture. Industrial fires can be worse. A 2006 study said toxic soot clings to firefighters even after they leave a blaze.

The study by researchers at the University of Cincinnati showed firefighters more likely to develop several types of cancer than workers in other professions.

The study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that firefighters have “significantly higher” rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer and multiple myeloma than nonfirefighters. Firefighters are 21 percent more likely to develop colon cancer — similar to the kind that killed Palmer — than other workers their age, according to the study.

Capt. Mark Kesterson (right) with the Roanoke Fire-EMS Department presents David Palmer's helmet to his son Michael Palmer (left); Palmer's wife, Billie Jean Palmer (second from left); and mother, Betty Semones Palmer Greenway, during Monday's funeral service. Photo by Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

Capt. Mark Kesterson (right) with the Roanoke Fire-EMS Department presents David Palmer’s helmet to his son Michael Palmer (left); Palmer’s wife, Billie Jean Palmer (second from left); and mother, Betty Semones Palmer Greenway, during Monday’s funeral service. Photo by Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

Virginia’s Line of Duty Act seems to recognize that danger. Under the state law, volunteer and salaried firefighters are generally eligible to receive benefits if they’re disabled or die responding to a call. They’re also presumed to be eligible if they develop a respiratory or heart disease, or certain types of cancer, including rectal cancer.

“This job is dangerous, and we are exposed to a lot of hazards,” Roanoke Fire-EMS Chief David Hoback said. “That’s why the presumption is there. They know there is an inherent risk.”

Hoback, as the head of Palmer ‘s department, is preparing a detailed report of Palmer ‘s health history to submit to the state comptroller’s office, which administers the Line of Duty Act Fund. Virginia State Police, working with fund administrators, will investigate the claim and submit a recommendation to a state panel.

The process could take six months or more, Hoback said.

“We’re going to do everything we can to support the family,” Hoback said.

Roanoke’s firefighters, like many fire and rescue providers in the state, are prohibited from using tobacco. They receive regular physical examinations and urine screenings.

Palmer ‘s children — Michael, 17, and Kathryn, 12 — both have autism, B.J. Palmer said. She now pays more than $1,000 a month in insurance premiums since her husband’s health insurance coverage ran out, she said.

Palmer ‘s 36-year career in emergency medicine included 26 years as a firefighter-paramedic with Roanoke’s fire and EMS programs, Hoback said. Palmer was one of the first paramedics hired by the city when he joined in 1985, and he was integral in the department’s transition when the city’s fire and EMS programs merged 10 years later.

Palmer worked for agencies and departments across the valley, including Carilion Clinic Patient Transportation, the Jefferson College of Health Sciences, Roanoke County and Bedford County.

“He was one of the best paramedics we’ve ever had,” Hoback said. “He was just a wonderful guy. He was friendly to everybody.”

Dozens of colleagues attended Palmer ‘s funeral Monday, which included a ceremonial color guard and a flyover by Carilion’s Lifeguard 10 helicopter. Palmer ‘s family was presented with an American flag, an engraved fire ax and the yellow helmet the firefighter wore while fighting fires.

An honorary radio transmission went out across a city dispatch channel as the service ended.

“Firefighter David Palmer has answered his last call,” the dispatcher said. “He will be missed but never forgotten.”

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