Hey, Firefighter … Cancer Is Real … Believe Me!

By Past Chief Brian F. McQueen, FASNY Director

Somewhere in the U.S., there are two young volunteer firefighters who have become great friends through the fire service. They enjoy the brotherhood and elation of helping others on their worst days. Sadly, statistics have shown that one of these dedicated firefighters – husband/wife, father/mother and friend – will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in their lifetime. Alarming is an understatement!

With the big push on recruitment and retention in the volunteer fire service during the month of April, we can’t lose sight of the important issues that we all face being a volunteer firefighter today.

Sure, we hear about the probationary firefighters’ dreams and their wanting to look like the “heroic image” of blackened helmets, face shields and gear. But, what we can never forget is the growing epidemic of cancer in the fire service and our need to provide the essential persona and education to reduce this disease among our brother and sister firefighters.

I get sick to my stomach every time I read The Secret List by Chief Billy Goldfeder about a young firefighter who passes after his courageous battle with cancer. Left behind are a beautiful wife and very young family. To me, and I’m sure to many of you, that just should not be happening! It’s time we heed the message being sent to us and develop a plan to protect our new recruits.

What we are realizing through research by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), is that this one disease – cancer – claims more lives of firefighters than the real-life dangers they face through the job that they perform. This alone sounds an alarm in each of our stations of the need to embed cancer prevention education objectives in our daily skills and instruction.

I’m saddened to hear about my good friend, Firefighter/Paramedic Anthony Pagliaro of the Schuyler Volunteer Fire Department/Ambulance, who in his late 30s – with a beautiful time.

In no way should Firefighter Pagliaro or his loving family endure the overwhelming medical and travel bills that accompany his monthly trips from Central New York to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Not when he gives his untiring efforts protecting his community 24/7, 365!

This is just one firefighter that sticks in my mind from so many who have shared their stories with me knowing my personal fight with occupational cancer (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) believed to be caused by my 39 years as a volunteer firefighter.

In some states, New York being one, local governments and their compensation boards often are voicing their opinions against presumptive cancer laws for firefighters. But in New York State, only the career firefighters are covered and the volunteers are not. What these compensation boards do not realize is that volunteer firefighters in New York State save over $3.2 billion a year with their service!

They are fighting the same fires and using the same tactics and equipment as the career departments. When you speak of the tax dollars being saved, developing a plan that would cover volunteer firefighters from cancer would be in the best interest of communities covered by the volunteers. What the governments and compensation boards do not realize is that over the past three years, there has been more education and preventative measures being taught in fire training classes across the United States than ever before. FASNY is leading the charge so that “No One Fights Cancer Alone.”

 

So, you say, “Where do I start?” I’m sure you have read about all the studies being done in the field on cancer preventative measures and sometimes wonder, “Will all this work?”

Providing a second hood or gear after a major fire so that a firefighter’s gear can be washed properly? Using gear washers to clean? Showering after a fire? Making sure the diesel exhaust systems inside the stations are working properly and being used correctly?

While these are questions that have surfaced not more than three years ago, they most definitely have some validity when speaking about ways in which our fire service leadership and elected officials can protect our firefighters.

Many people ask me why firefighters are more susceptible to cancer. What studies have proven is that our personal assets that make our lives comfortable in our homes produce toxic, poisonous fumes when ignited. Researchers believe that the cancer rates are being driven up by chemicals that lace the smoke and soot inside burning buildings. Just look at the consumer goods you have in your home today. Most of them are manufactured using synthetic materials, and fires are burning hotter, faster and more toxic as a result.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) Firefighter Cancer Alliance has developed information that provides our fire service leaders with “boots-on-the-ground” information that can be shared in their departments. In fact, this Alliance is planning a national symposium on firefighter cancer to be held in September in Phoenix, Arizona. Organizations such as the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) and FASNY have identified cancer as a major issue affecting volunteers today and have earmarked resources on their websites to be used in fire stations across the United States.

 

I applaud our career and volunteer department leaders who have prioritized the cancer epidemic and have built a foundation of safety and awareness for their firefighters. In Boston, Commissioner Finn has worked with his leadership staff to make sure that cancer prevention education is being taught in each of their recruit classes. Each of our departments can take this same message and develop it into training skills in any career or volunteer fire department. Knowing the cost of replacement and training of a new firefighter, providing training such as this can enhance the long-term goals of retaining well-trained, healthy firefighters.

Most recently, U.S. Congressman Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ) and U.S. Congressman Chris Collins (R-NY) announced the introduction of the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act with 76 bipartisan original sponsors. This bill was originally founded in Barneveld, New York, after Congressman Richard Hanna attended a program on cancer in the fire service. The bill would create a national cancer registry for firefighters diagnosed with this deadly disease. The creation of this registry would enable researchers to study the relationship between firefighters’ exposure to dangerous fumes and harmful toxins and the increased risk for several major cancers. In the future, this information could also allow for better protective equipment and prevention techniques to be developed. The importance of lobbying in Washington to pass this bill is crucial to protecting those that protect you.

In closing, let me say that three years ago, after being told “you have cancer” by my oncologist, never would I have ever dreamed that my love of being a volunteer firefighter could possibly be killing me! Please listen to this message and build firefighter cancer education into your daily drills at your station. The time spent now will allow your team to live a healthier, safer life for themselves and their families.