Hey Firefighter… Cancer is Real… Believe Me!

Issue 8 and Volume 12.

By Brian F. McQueen

Somewhere in the United States 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 day. Sadly, statistics have shown that one of these dedicated firefighters, a husband/wife, father/mother, and friend, will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in his or her lifetime. Alarming is an understatement!

With the big push on recruitment and retention in the volunteer fire service, we can’t lose sight of the important issues that we all face being volunteer firefighters today. Sure, we hear about the new probationary firefighters’ dreams and their desire to look like the “heroic image,” with blackened helmets, face shields, and gear. But what we can’t ever forget is the growing epidemic of cancer in the fire service and our need to provide the essential education to reduce this disease among our brother and sister firefighters. I get sick to my stomach every time I read on “The Secret List” from Chief Billy Goldfeder about a young firefighter who passes after his courageous battle with cancer, leaving behind a beautiful wife and very young family. 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 the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and National Fire Protection Association is that this one disease 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.

Close To Home

I’m saddened to hear about my good friend, Firefighter/Paramedic Anthony Pagliaro of the Schuyler (NY) Volunteer Fire Department/Ambulance, who is in his late 30s with a beautiful wife and three young children and is battling cancer for the third time. (You can view his story here: The Cost of Cancer in the Fire Service: Volunteer Firefighter Families Share Their Stories: www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OCEBLSEz3E.)

In no way should Pagliaro, or his loving family, have to 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 who sticks in my mind from the 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 voice their opinions against cancer presumptive laws for firefighters. But in New York, only the career firefighters are covered whereas the volunteers are not. What these compensation boards do not realize is that volunteer firefighters in New York save more than $3 billion a year in 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 for communities covered by the volunteers. What the governments and compensation boards do not realize is that over the past three years there have been more education and preventive measures being taught in fire training classes across the United States than ever before. We are leading the charge so that no one fights cancer alone.

What Can We Do?

So, you say, “Where do I start?” I’m sure you have read about all the studies being done in the field on cancer prevention measures and sometimes wonder, “Will all this work?” Like 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 the gear? 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 is it that firefighters are more susceptible to cancer? What studies have proven is that our personal assets that make our lives comfortable in our homes, when ignited, produce toxic, poisonous fumes. 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; as a result, fires are burning hotter, faster, and more toxic. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation 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 have identified cancer as a major issue affecting the volunteers today and have earmarked resources on their Web sites 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, Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn has worked with his leadership staff to make sure that cancer prevention education is being taught in each of their recruit classes. We can take this same message and develop it into training skills in any career or volunteer fire department. Knowing the cost of replacing and training a new firefighter, providing training such as this can enhance the long-term goals of retaining well-trained, healthy firefighters.

Most recently, United States Congressmen Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ) and 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 firefighter 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 who protect you.

Part of Daily Education

Three years ago, before being told by my oncologist that I had cancer and that the type of cancer is one of the fastest-growing cancers in the fire service today, 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. Your time spent now will allow your team to live a healthier, safer life – for them and their families.

Brian F. McQueen is a retired chief from the Whitesboro (NY) Fire Department. He is the New York State director of the National Volunteer Fire Council, director of the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, a life member of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs, and a retired public school administrator for Whitesboro Central School.