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Firefighter's HIV-related death occurred in the line of duty
It has been four years since South King Fire and Rescue veteran Doug Waller died as a result of contracting HIV on the job, but his death is just now being recognized as having occurred in the line of duty.
In September, a contingent of South King personnel traveled to Colorado Springs, Colo., with Waller’s wife, Sharon, her two sons and other family to witness Waller’s name engraved on the International Association of Firefighters’ Fallen Firefighter Memorial.
Waller’s former colleagues at Station 65 in Auburn gave Waller’s family a medallion from the memorial at a ceremony on Sunday morning, the fourth anniversary of Waller’s death. A plaque will hang in the station in his honor.
The recognition of Waller as a casualty took so long due to the nature of his death; it had to be proven to the state of Washington that he contracted HIV on the job, as opposed to a more obvious firefighting-related injury.
Waller's family described a scenario where Waller provided medical assistance to a bleeding man who later informed firefighters that he had HIV, though neither fire officials nor Waller's family could pinpoint the exact way the infection occurred. A test immediately after the injury came up negative. He did not find out he had the virus until 2006, two months before he died.
Waller retired from the department in 2000, said IAFF Local 2024 President Ryan Herrera, and since Waller's HIV diagnosis came years later, it was outside a 60-month window that would have allowed his death to be recognized as in the line of duty. The state Department of Labor and Industries, which handles workers’ compensation claims, needed proof that Waller contracted HIV while he was on duty as a firefighter.
Herrera said that the claim was finally approved in February 2008. Waller’s family allowed the release of his records in May to the International Association of Firefighters, which allowed his name to be inscribed on the fallen firefighter memorial. Waller’s name was engraved under the year 2006.
There are efforts to have Waller’s name placed on memorials in Olympia and on the national monument in Washington. Herrera said he is working on submitting Waller’s name to the national monument. Washington State Council of Fire Fighters President Kelly Fox could not immediately be reached for comment on whether Waller is in line to be included on the state memorial.
Waller joined South King as a volunteer in 1976, and was hired full time in 1981.
Herrera could not confirm that Waller was the first firefighter from Washington to die from contracting HIV on the job. Labor and Industries spokeswoman Elaine Fischer said that Waller’s death was treated like any worker who died on the job as the result of a blood-borne pathogen.
“We certainly wouldn't look at it any differently than any other occupational illness or disease,” Fischer said. She said that the certification of Waller’s death as in the line of duty took longer because of the time it took to identify when he was exposed to HIV.
The Department of Labor and Industries does not have public records showing specific cases of firefighters contracting HIV on the job. However, it does keep statistics on firefighters who die as a result of more general “viral diseases.” In 2008 and 2009, records show that a firefighter claimed a viral disease injury — only one claim in each year.
For all occupations claiming an injury resulting from “viral diseases,” the department showed 10 and 18 in 2008 and 2009, respectively. In 2007, there were 103 claims, and 211 in 2006. The category did not exist in 2005.
Data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2009 report on occupational fatalities in Washington state show no deaths from “harmful substances or environments.” There were three deaths nationally in 2009 in that category.
South King Fire and Rescue spokeswoman Kendra Kay said that two other South King firefighters have died in the line of duty. Volunteer firefighter Eugene Parsons died in 1969 when the fire truck he was riding in collided with a utility pole. Volunteer firefighter Fred Auer Sr. died in 1966 after suffering a heart attack fighting a blaze in Lake Grove.