Injury forces firefighter to leave the town he loves

Posted: Friday, November 12, 2004

Having served Juneau as a career firefighter for almost 13 years after volunteering for eight, Richard Duncan considered the fire station his home.

Then he injured a hip on the job in 2003 while lifting a man from a wheelchair. Eventually the injury forced him from his beloved career and, now, Juneau, where he has lived for all of his 41 years. He plans to depart by ferry with his family on Saturday.

Duncan didn't expect to leave his hometown under such circumstances.

"We want to raise our kids here but my wife's salary isn't enough to support the family," said Duncan, whose job was terminated in September after 18 weeks of family medical leave.

His wife, Charise, had worked at the Juneau Christian Daycare Center for 13 years. They have two daughters - Destiny, 10, and Noella, 8.

Juneau City Manager Rod Swope said he can't discuss Duncan's medical condition in detail because employees' medical information is considered confidential.

"I think this is an unfortunate event," Swope said. "I know Rich. I like him. I think he was an excellent firefighter. We did everything we could to keep him on the job."

While Duncan was recovering from arthroscopic surgery, he performed some light duties with Capital City Fire and Rescue, such as fire inspections and public education classes.

Swope said terminating Duncan was a difficult decision.

"Other firefighters had to work longer hours to fill in his shift," Swope said.

Trevor Richards, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters union local, pleaded with the city on Duncan's behalf.

"The city has invested its time and money to train this hardworking firefighter-medic. It would be a shame to throw away such a valuable employee," Richards said in a letter to the city in August.

Sandy Cannon, supervising wage and hour investigator for the Alaska Department of Labor, said the city didn't do anything wrong legally. According to the federal Family Medical Leave Act, employees are allowed up to 12 work weeks off to recover or care for a family member with a serious health condition. The Alaska Family Medical Leave Act allows up to 18 work weeks.

Duncan's family has a long history in public service. His grandfather was a block warden during World War II, patrolling streets to make sure lights were out. His father was a Juneau police officer for 20 years.

Duncan himself has made many contributions to the fire department.

He developed a cardio-pulmonary resuscitation program at Juneau-Douglas High School that helped more than 3,000 students receive their CPR cards. He has placed in the top three more than 20 times in the state fire competition, with 11 first-place finishes. In 1991, he set the state record in the fire extinguisher category and has broken that record five times since.

On Sept. 13 of 2003, Duncan hurt his hip when he transferred a cruise ship passenger to Bartlett Regional Hospital. At first, he didn't pay much attention to the pain.

"As a firefighter, you get hurt on the job all the time. I thought I could walk it off," Duncan said. "But it never happened."

Duncan underwent surgery to repair his hip last March. In August, he had another hip repair surgery.

Duncan said he would love to stay and keep working for the fire department.

"There's so much work that needs to be done," Duncan said. "I am disappointed that they didn't try to explore other options."

Charise said she couldn't help but feel disappointed about the city's decision to let Duncan go.

"Over the years, he was exposed to dangerous diseases because of his work. He couldn't come home for birthdays, anniversaries and holidays because of his work," said Charise. "I feel the city didn't stand by him. We hope the city can change its policy so the next person is better taken care of and more supported."

The Duncans are moving to Sunnyvale, Calif., where Charise's family lives. Duncan said he plans to go to nursing school. Eventually, he wants to work as a flight medic.

"We are ready to start all over again," Duncan said.

• I-Chun Che can be reached at ichun.che@juneauempire.com.



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