Philly firefighter speaks out about court decision that could help comrades

Cherri Gregg
November 13, 2018 - 4:00 am
Scott Sladek is the face of a case that has opened the door to allow more firefighters to be compensated by the city if they get cancer, a hazard of the job.

Cherri Gregg/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A Philadelphia firefighter is the face of a case that has opened the door to allow more firefighters to be compensated by the city if they get cancer, a hazard of the job. 

"Most people that go to work have a clean air space. Ours isn't. Our office is in smoke filled areas," said Scott Sladek, who is Deputy Chief-Special Operations with the Philadelphia Fire Department. 

A second generation firefighter with 24 years on the job, he's fought hundreds of fires. 

In 2007, Sladek was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma. He had a 1.5 inch patch cut out of his leg, but had a hard time convincing the city to pay him workers compensation.

"I got melanoma, but guys are suffering from prostate cancer, lung cancer, kidney cancer, all different types," said Sladek. "How do you prove you got the cancer on the job. They want to know time, place, date, all that kind of stuff."

So Sladek hired lawyer Michael Dryden and sued.

"Firefighters get these cancers younger and the cancers are more aggressive," said Dryden. "In the smoke, in the soot, in the diesel exhaust, there are known human carcinogens."

Studies show that firefighters are 1.5 to six times more likely than the general population to be diagnosed with cancer, and their cancer is more likely to repeat and to claim lives. Yet the City of Philadelphia is known to deny claims for firefighters citing causation. 

But the law changed.  

In October, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held firefighters need only prove they were exposed to specific types of carcinogens common on the job for at least four years. After that, it's up to the city to prove that the cancer was caused by non-work related exposure.

"Today's environment is just much more toxic than it was 30 years ago," said Don Konkle, the Director of the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute. He says building materials, furniture and other items in homes and buildings are more likely to contain man-made materials and chemicals, making the environment around a fire site more toxic.

"A lot of the carcinogens are absorbed to your skin, not just by breathing them," he said. "It's amazing just how dirty you get in a fire. You are covered in soot and the soot contains carcinogens."

The Philadelphia Fire Department has implemented a number of safety measures to help firefighters avoid toxic materials, like their gear and breathing apparatus. They also include cleansing wipes on sight to help firefighters wipe their faces and bodies right away.

"There are people right now who are suffering, basically fighting for their lives," said Sladek.

He says the ruling means he can go back to the lower court with a better chance of getting compensation. Also, in the event his melanoma comes back, he and his family would be protected.

"The case itself was about just getting coverage," he said. "I don't get any money for this, I just want to make sure me and my family are taken care of, I feel like I earned it."

Also, the firefighters who have come behind him.

In response to a request for comment, a city spokesman sent the following statement via email:

“We are grateful to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for its thoughtful analysis and for providing some clarity on the applicable evidentiary burdens.”