Pinellas County is mourning the loss of a beloved long-time firefighter. Pete Huffman spent 35 years with the fire service, most recently with the Gulfport Fire Department and serving as a fire instructor at St. Pete College.
We first introduced you to Pete Huffman back in May of last year, when he retired from the fire service. After his death, his family is now determined to keep his memory alive by carrying on a fight Pete was passionate about: pushing for Florida to get a measure in place it currently doesn't have to protect first responders.
Pete Huffman's home is covered with a lifetime of memories from more than three decades as a firefighter. We met him last year as he prepared to retire.
"It's been my passion. It's been everything that I've known," Huffman said in an interview with ABC Action News in May 2015.
His wife Marcy got used to years of him running out on late night calls and understood the risk his job carried.
"There's always a chance he could get hurt on the job, whether it's in a burning building or even a traffic accident, you know. Things go wrong all the time," Marcy Huffman said.
But it was an unexpected effect of all those years fighting fires that may have cost Pete Huffman his life. He was diagnosed with cancer, and his doctors convinced decades of exposure to toxic chemicals in the line of duty contributed.
"The doctors would say, 'Oh, did you smoke, do you smoke?' And soon as soon as he said, 'I'm a firefighter.' they said 'Oh, okay,'" said Marcy Huffman.
Cancer drained Pete physically. He was forced to take early retirement and cash in his pension to pay for chemo.
"The chemo that he took every other week, twice a month, was over $18,000 a treatment. That's a lot of money. It's just a roller coaster. Now there's no retirement money left and the bills keep coming in," said Marcy Huffman.
During Pete's cancer treatment, the Huffmans found Florida's one of only 14 states without a law to help protect them in the fight of their life.
"My brother was a hero. And the firefighters, they're heroes every day. They lay their lives on the line to protect life and property, and they serve the community in a way that's unparalleled. And I think it's shameful we don't have this protection in place for them," said Annette Barnette, Pete's sister.
Pete Huffman and his family supported the fight for Florida to get what's called a "Cancer Presumption Law" on the books, which would make sure firefighters are guaranteed benefits if they get cancer. And just days after his death, they're committed to making sure that fight continues, and the cause is still quite personal.
"Our son's a firefighter. So yes, it's too late for us. But we can still protect him, protect the firefighters working now, and protect the ones coming in," said Marcy Huffman.
And Pete's son CJ is glad to see some changes already being made: more health screenings, cancer education, and cleaning gear more often to help reduce the risk. He hopes one day, his dad's legacy will live on with Florida lawmakers passing further cancer protections for first responders.
"I think it would be tremendous, not only just for me and my family, but for future generations to come," said Christopher Huffman, Pete's son.
Last year, Florida's House and Senate introduced "Firefighter Cancer Presumption Laws"but both efforts failed to make it out of committee. The US Congress has also considered creating a national registry for firefighters with cancer, but that has yet to be done.
No matter what happens with the law, Pete Huffman's family knows he will be remembered for a long time here since they're now establishing a scholarship in his name at St. Pete College to help future firefighters achieve their dreams.
Hundreds will say a final farewell to Pete Huffman on Tuesday, August 16.
His funeral begins at 10:00 a.m. at the Pinellas Park Performing Arts Center and it will be followed by a procession, which could include as many as 500 fire trucks, to Calvary Catholic Cemetery around 11:30 a.m.