Exposure to toxins may be cause of Spokane fire chiefs’ deaths

Firefighter deaths from job-related diseases are becoming more common, the fire marshal said.

By Will Campbell / The Spokesman-Review

For the second time in less than a week, the Spokane Valley Fire Department has announced the death of a former fire captain, and again, work-related exposure to toxins is suspected as the cause.

On Friday, the department announced that former Capt. Tim Cruger, 67, died of cancer caused from exposure to smoke while on the job. Five days later, on Wednesday, the department announced the death of former Capt. David Phay, 57, adding that an investigation is underway to determine if Phay’s death was linked to work-related toxins encountered on the job.

Phay died on Dec. 17, according to a news release from the Spokane Valley Fire Department. During his 28-year career he worked as a firefighter, paramedic, lieutenant and captain in Spokane Valley. He retired in October 2015.

Phay’s obituary stated he was diagnosed with a rare disease in May 2018, possibly caused by cancer. He is survived by his wife, Michelle, his children Justin, Jason, Riley, Christian, Seth and Jared, as well as six grandchildren.

Cruger died on Dec. 24, according to the department’s Friday announcement. During his 29-year career, he served as an engineer, lieutenant and captain. He retired in 2015. Soon thereafter he developed kidney cancer, which metastasized to his colon, lungs and brain, according to a Spokane Valley Fire Department Facebook post.

Cruger’s father, Melvin Cruger, a former Spokane Fire Department captain, died on Dec. 6. The cause of his death is not currently known, but he was in his 90s, said Spokane Valley Engine 7 Capt. George Hedebeck, a vice president of the Spokane Valley firefighters union.

Both Phay’s and Cruger’s deaths are considered line-of-duty deaths, according to Washington state occupational disease laws. The Spokane Valley Fire Department is waiting on autopsy results to see if cancer was the root cause of Phay’s illness, Hedebeck said. Regardless of the result, however, his death qualifies as a line-of-duty death because it falls within a 60-month window after his retirement.

Phay died from hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), a rare disease more common in infants and young children, according to Hedebeck, but adults can get it too. In adults, cancer or infections can cause HLH.

Phay’s memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday at Advent Lutheran Church, 13009 E. Broadway Ave., in Spokane Valley. The date of Cruger’s memorial service has not been announced.

Greg Rogers, fire marshal for the Spokane Valley Fire Department, said firefighter deaths from job-related diseases are becoming more common, but since firefighters have become more aware of the problem, they have changed their culture to work more safely by adopting new technologies.

“It’s one of the biggest things that our industry is going through right now,” he said. “It’s really changing things.”

Spokane Valley now has a second set of gear for each firefighter, and after one set is exposed to smoke, it goes into “extractors” that wash out carcinogens.

“Twenty-five years ago, you would only have one set of gear. You came back from a fire and hosed it off and were going out for a next call 40 minutes later,” he said. “Now, after a crew has gone in to fight a fire, we try to cycle them out first and shower and clean up.”

He also said new clothing materials that firefighters use are better at reducing exposure to carcinogens.

In an effort to curb exposure, the Spokane Valley Fire Department has been buying more extractors and second sets of gear. The department is also getting $600,000 worth of new self-contained breathing apparatus equipment in the next two months, Hedebeck said.

“All of these things were implemented before the recent deaths, but (Phay’s and Cruger’s) exposure was years ago,” Hedebeck said. “Both worked in an era where the protections we have in place were not in place then. It was cool to have a black, sooty helmet. It was cool to have a dirty mask — we’re trying to change that behavior.”

As a firefighter, Phay worked as a mechanic on respirators, a job that could likely lead to more exposure.

“These things that we carry into every fire, Dave would take apart and repair,” Hedebeck said. “In essence he was exposed to every fire.”

After retirement, Phay taught CPR and was an instructor to high school students at the Spokane Valley Tech Fire Science program, according to a news release. He was also a director of the Spokane Valley Firefighters Benevolent Association nonprofit.

Rogers said the department has taken the deaths hard.

“The biggest thing for us is two members died this close together,” he said. “We hadn’t even had time to grieve over one and we’ve already had another.”

He remembered Phay as someone who’s emblematic of firefighters.

“He definitely made a big impression on everybody in the department,” Rogers said. “He’s an example of what our profession should be and what it should be about.”

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