Widow of Orange County firefighter denied cancer death benefit

County argues it was a ‘personal medical condition’

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – When Orange County Fire rescue veteran Erik Siena lost his five-month battle with brain cancer this past May, his wife Christy filed for the line-of-duty death benefit provided under Florida Senate Bill 426.

Christy, who served as a paramedic with the department for 16 years, never received out-of-pocket medical expenses, the $7,500 designated for funeral expenses or the $75,000 death benefit promised under the existing law.

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The county twice denied claims for line-of-duty death, finding that the brain cancer was a “personal medical condition,” not a result of his job.

“It’s not fair,” she told News 6. “He always worried about exposure to one warehouse chemical fire.”

The 46-year-old firefighter was convinced exposure to hazardous chemicals at an Orlando warehouse chemical fire his unit responded to in April 2006 exposed his team to carcinogens that would eventually catch up to them.

Photographs of the scene obtained by News 6 showed barrels clearly marked hazardous material and toxic.

Christy recalled him telling her that the water turned green as they fought to bring the blaze under control and the protective gear “fell apart” as they packed it for cleaning after the fire.

“As he started watching his friends get sick and pass away, he got more and more concerned,” a tearful Christy Siena recalled, “He told me to do something if I could.”

He was the last of three members of Orange County Fire’s Heavy Rescue Squad 3 who responded to that call and eventually died from cancer. Only one survived.

Cristy said her husband was diagnosed with brain cancer in January after experiencing a seizure. The bill signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2019 covers 21 cancers, including brain cancer.

When the request for the death benefit was rejected, Christy alled Maitland attorney Geoff Bichler to represent her.

Bichler, a longtime champion of first responders facing PTSD and other health-related issues, has long argued the law, while well intentioned, is vague.

“I think this case has the potential to be a very important test case in Florida,” the veteran attorney told News 6. “That’s why Erik’s case is so Important, because it can help the public understand this law doesn’t go far enough.”

Toxic materials in Erik Siena case. (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Under SB 426, 21 cancers are supposed to be covered for all full-time firefighters who have served with their respective agencies for at least five years. The law specifically states that the employer must bear the cost to provide all the benefits created under the legislation.

Since November 2019, News 6 has been investigating cases that involved Florida firefighters diagnosed with cancer yet are unable to collect benefits.

To date, seven cases have been rejected by various agencies across the state while three are still in litigation.

News 6 presented several of our reports to the office of State Fire Marshall Jimmy Patronis, a strong proponent of SB 426.

A spokesperson for Patronis told News 6: ”The State Fire Marshal’s Office is aware of this issue and is looking into it further.”

About the Author:

News 6’s Emmy Award-winning Investigative Reporter Mike Holfeld has made Central Florida history with major investigations that have led to new policies, legislative proposals and even -- state and national laws. If you have an issue or story idea, call Mike's office at 407-521-1322.