Fire districts in Arizona lack the necessary funding to support presumptive cancer-related workers’ compensation payments. Fire districts in Arizona, unlike municipalities, are unable to receive compensation each year from the Municipal Firefighter Cancer Reimbursement Fund.
In Arizona, fire districts tax the citizens who live within the boundaries of their district to create funding to provide service to different areas of Arizona, much of which is rural and unincorporated land. Fire districts are different from fire departments, which are a part of a municipality and thus receive funding directly. Much of the funding for fire districts comes from personal property taxes.
In 2021, the Arizona Senate passed a law making certain diseases, including cancer, considered to be presumptive under workers’ compensation law. In 2022, the Senate passed another law creating a reimbursement fund for municipalities’ cancer-related workers’ compensation payments. The fund does not provide reimbursement to fire districts. Fire districts do not receive reimbursement because they are not governed by municipalities.
Brian Tobin, the fire chief for the Daisy Mountain Fire District near Desert Hills, Arizona, said that following the presumptive cancer law, the insurance companies that covered the fire districts either dropped them from coverage or threatened to raise their rates.
As a result, many fire districts instead joined an insurance pool where each firefighter, paramedic or other personnel pays a percent of their gross payroll into the pool to cover the workers’ compensation payments.
Tobin said the increased insurance costs have led to less service meaning fewer fire trucks and other emergency vehicles running throughout the district.
“Money has to come from somewhere, and in many cases, it comes from providing less service,” he said.
The Daisy Mountain Fire District geographically covers much of the land that Interstate-17 is located on. The highway connects Phoenix to Flagstaff and according to GPS software company Teletrac Navman, between 2016 and 2019 there were 103 fatalities on the 146-mile road. Arizona fire districts also comprise much of the land considered by the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management to be the highest risk for a wildfire to occur.
Brian Moore, the chairman of the Daisy Mountain Fire District Governing Board, said that the municipal firefighter cancer reimbursement fund helps expedite the workers' compensation claim process for firefighters in municipalities.
“It gives them one less excuse that they can use to deny workers’ compensation cancer claims because they do have funds,” he said.
Moore said that the fund helps prevent legal battles over workers’ compensation payments. Moore said it is stressful to take legal action when firefighters receive a cancer diagnosis. He used Goodyear firefighter Gilbert Aguirre, who has been fighting a legal battle with insurance company CopperPoint since he was diagnosed with cancer eight years ago as an example.
Moore said the solution for fire districts is unclear. However, he said the first step would be identifying a revenue source for the fire districts so legislation, like the Municipal Firefighter Cancer Reimbursement Fund, can be passed.