Tell Me Why …

( By Brian F. McQueen )

As I change my desk calendar to reflect the new year, I have come to appreciate every day I am alive … more than you will ever know.

It’s been just over two years since being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s B-cell lymphoma. To tell you that my life as a firefighter has changed is an understatement; not to mention how much my family has suffered along with me through the rigorous treatments and frequent visits to New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Each and every day I know is a gift from God. Many of you know me and realize that once driven by defeat, the will to win is ever so present in each and every day. My drive is to survive and help others understand the impact cancer has not only on their life, but the loved ones that they have “inside their helmet.” That’s my goal until we, the leaders in the fire service, realize that cancer is no joke! Can someone tell me why some of us aren’t taking the cancer epidemic in the fire service seriously? You only need to look through social media and you can find countless examples of exactly what I am talking about.

Thanks to the Believe 271 Foundation Inc.; FASNY; National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC); National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF); New York State Association of Fire Chiefs (NYSAFC); my wife, Sarah; and my family, I’ve been able to share my story of cancer in the fire service and hopefully make a change in the culture today and in the future.

Since my diagnosis, we have traveled across New York State and parts of the Northeast, educating volunteer and career firefighters about the dangers they face in fires today. Through my educational seminars, I have met some of our bravest firefighters: Those who fight the battle with cancer not knowing whether tomorrow will ever come.

My wife and I have listened to some of the most gut-wrenching stories of firefighters suffering from this terrible disease, never realizing that the job they were doing in serving their community could be killing them. This past fall, I did a program for the Association of Fire Districts in Kingston. Following the program, I was approached by a firefighter who contracted cancer after his duty at Ground Zero. At that time, he never believed that the Zadroga Act that assists those with medical issues related to 911 would pass.

I vividly remember quite well the program that we held at the Accord Fire Department in Ulster County. We dedicated the program to its district chief Edward Miller, who passed away September 18, 2015, from lung cancer. Ed was a 44-year member and passed at the age of 60. Following that program, a firefighter approached us and shared his fight with brain cancer, including the impact that cancer has on both he and his family. Another close friend Anthony Pagliaro, a volunteer EMS chief with the Schuyler Volunteer Fire Department, fights cancer on a daily basis with his lovely wife, Nicole, and kids at his side throughout.

Back here in Central New York, we have heard the sad stories in Barneveld, Willowvale, Sauquoit, Clayville, Lake Delta, East Herkimer, Little Falls and Whitesboro, to name a few. Cancer has no limitations, my friends!

So many times, we would get back in our car, tears still welling in our eyes, realizing the educational mission we are on is more than that. It’s providing an opportunity for those suffering a chance to talk about it.

This issue of cancer in the fire service is an epidemic and the leadership in departments today, along with our elected officials, needs to realize the impact cancer has on retaining qualified firefighters. It’s unacceptable that firefighters are afflicted with cancer doing a job they love: serving their residents.

Our national and state firematic organizations – career and volunteer – realize what an impact cancer can have on their ranks. Thanks to Chief Kevin Quinn and the NVFC, I was honored to be a part of the National Fallen Firefighters Cancer Alliance Committee in 2015. I look forward to some great things to come from it in 2016.

I have had the pleasure of serving on this committee with Chief James Seavey, my brother from Maryland who also fights the fight with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Together we have brought this serious issue back to NVFC and formed a cancer task force with the mission to develop a national cancer awareness education program that may someday apply internationally. This is just one step in addressing the needs of our membership.

FASNY, NYSAFC, NFFF, County Fire Coordinators of the State of New York and the Association of Fire Districts of the State of New York have all taken up the fight to encourage our governmental officials in Albany to pass the cancer legislation in both the state Senate and the Assembly this legislative year. FASNY’s impressive cancer video was sent to each senator and assemblyman in our state, encouraging them to sign on to this legislation. You can view this video here. When the time comes, we will need your support.

What baffles me, though, after all of these educational programs and the articles written in firematic magazines as well as on the Internet and social media, is why … why are we still seeing dirty helmets and gear in lockers, in personal vehicles and dirty, salty looking faces in fire stations following working structure fires, and photos of our children trying on soot-covered PPE?

The Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN) has published an in-depth white paper sharing research along with steps that fire service leaders can take to reduce the risk of contracting cancer in the fire service today. FCSN President Bryan Frieders asks the leaders in the fire service: “Are those bugles on your collar or are they plungers?” While these are some strong words coming from a fire chief himself, they echo the need for stronger leadership; leadership that recognizes the seriousness of the cancer issue and addresses it with new recruits as well as veterans.

The city of Boston Fire Department and its union took a proactive approach to reviewing all of the policies and embedding cancer prevention education in each of its recruit classes after they discovered that every three weeks one of their firefighters is diagnosed with cancer.

This leadership doesn’t stop at the fire station doors. Our elected officials must realize that cancer prevention budgetary items such as gear washers, dryers, extra sets of personal protective gear, hoods and diesel exhaust capture systems are crucial in our fight against cancer. Putting money into this equipment now will ultimately save them money in the future.

Fires are burning hotter than they were just 10 years ago. The estimated time for residents to exit their homes in a fire has been reduced to three to four minutes. With over 82,000 chemicals in the building industry today, as well as the toxic fumes and carcinogens that burn from the fire retardant drapes and furniture of today, firefighters have a two times greater chance of getting cancer than the general public.

It’s time that we take a positive approach to this cancer epidemic. Take a lesson from Boston and enforce cancer prevention education programs in new recruit training, as well as day-to-day training exercises. Remember cancer doesn’t affect you today, but 12 to 15 years down the road when the doctor shares with you the three dreaded words no one wants to hear (“You have cancer”), you may not have the options that you have today.

Chiefs, now that you are starting a new year off, sit down with your leadership team, review your policies and best practices, and change the culture in the fire service today. I encourage each of you to walk the talk, lead by example and make cancer prevention education a priority in 2016.

Brian F. McQueen is a past chief of the Whitesboro Volunteer Fire Department, FASNY director, founding member of the Believe 271 Foundation Inc., delegate from New York to the NVFC, life member of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs and retired school district administrator. His educational seminar on cancer has reached more than 2,980 firefighters and was one of the highlighted webinars hosted by the NVFC. Most importantly, he is a cancer survivor.