2 St. Johns County leaders pushing for firefighter protection law expansion after 2011 explosion, fire in St. Augustine

Two St. Johns County leaders are pushing for significant changes at the state level to better protect firefighters who experience “line of duty” injuries or sicknesses. It stems from this explosion and fire in St. Augustine that happened back in August of 2011.

David Stevens is the union president for St. Johns County Professional Firefighters. He remembers that day in 2011 well.

“I remember going into our county administration and seeing stacks of gear piled up,” Stevens said. “Because they had to get [the firefighters] out of the gear from all of the chemicals that have been absorbed on the firefighters.”

More than 12 years later, several firefighters have said their health was severely affected by that scene.

It even forced at least two of them to medically retire, including the late Michael Riley. News4Jax first introduced viewers to him and his family in 2021.

Riley died in 2022. He was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s five years after the explosion.

RELATED: Former St. Augustine firefighter who sued over gas explosion dies

A former St. Johns County Fire Rescue engineer also said he is dealing with health issues caused by that fire. He was forced to medically retire.

That news prompted Stevens and St. Johns County Commissioner Sarah Arnold to fight for some significant changes.

“Knowing that we have between 50 or 60 people that day, knowing that they are waiting every day for a sign of something to pop up is something that we have to act on,” Arnold said. “We have to do something about this.”

Arnold and Stevens lobbied at the state capitol last week in an attempt to expand Florida’s presumptive disability for firefighters to include neurological diseases, like Parkinson’s.

They met with state Senator Travis Hutson and Representative Cyndi Stevenson.

Arnold and Stevens were also joined by St. Johns County administrator Joy Andrews, deputy administrator Brad Bradley, and commissioner Christian Whitehurst.

That change would give financial benefits to firefighters.

“They end up with this disease,” Stevens said. They get medically retired, they are out of work, their benefits are cut because they did not finish their full career because of the disease. The medical bills stack up and they are not even able to afford paying their medical bills. Presumption law would help solve some of those problems and take care of the firefighter.”

“It is absolutely devastating,” Arnold said. “I am sure it is devastating to him and his family as well. Anything that we can do, any financial relief or tax benefit that we can get pushed through at the state level to not only help him and his family, but any of the other firefighters that have been affected by this. It is of paramount importance and our top priority.”

The expansion Stevens and Arnold are fighting for already exists in three other states: New York, Virginia, and Indiana.

They want Florida to assemble a task force to study and research the connection between neurological disorders and firefighting. Stevens and Arnold hope lawmakers will discuss, establish, and pass a bill during the 2025 legislative session.

“Every day you pass a fire station,” Arnold said. “Every day we hear those sirens, and we know that that is a moment for prayer, a moment that they are going to save one of our neighbors. We have to fight for them. We have to continue to fight for them to protect them.”

RELATED: 2 companies cited after gas station explosion

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Coomes Oil and Supply Inc. doing business as the 5th Wheel BP gas station in St. Augustine, and Florida Rock and Tank Lines Inc. for safety hazards after an employee of the latter company was burned. That citation was issued in 2012.

The agency found the gas station and Florida Rock and Tank Lines refilled the above-ground storage tank even though the fuel level gauge did not work.

In 2015, the gas station won $800,000 in damages after it sued Florida Rock and Tank Lines.

A civil jury said the driver parked too close to the storage tanks, failed to check how much he could fill the tanks, and did not stay close enough to the shut-off valves.

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