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Volunteer Spotlight

Volunteer firefighters and EMS providers come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, but one thing they all have in common: They make a real difference in their communities! Check out these profiles of NVFC members to see what they are doing. Thank you to all who serve!

Natascha Hennen - Freeport, MN

Thomas Forster - Blairsden, CA

Volunteer Spotlight: Thomas Forster

Name:  Thomas Forster
Title:  Fire Chief
Department Name:  Plumas Eureka FD
Location:  Blairsden, CA

What is your career?
I’ve been employed by Lucasfilm Ltd., now Skywalker Properties Ltd., in Northern California for 31 years. I was the long-time Ranch Manager/Director of Operations and Facilities/Fire Chief at Skywalker Ranch, and now work part-time in agency and community relations. I’ve also done some teaching, and consulting in strategic planning and team building.

How long have you been an NVFC member?
Several years

Why are you an NVFC member?  
NVFC provides great value for volunteer and combination FDs. Along with IAFC's VCOS, NVFC is at the heart of providing leadership, resources, and encouragement to the volunteer fire service. Today it is more challenging than ever to successfully operate in the volunteer world, especially as our role has become more complex and costly.

Why are you a volunteer firefighter?
I am a fourth generation California firefighter, of now five generations in my family, totaling over 225 years of service in both career and volunteer roles. I grew up with my father, grandfather, and uncles as fire service role models and mentors, and always wanted to follow in their footsteps in serving my community. While my residence "community" has changed several times in my life, I have always remained engaged with the fire service, and have found it to be very rewarding in many ways. Of all of my volunteer activities over the years, I have always found the fire service to be both the most demanding and the most rewarding.

How long have you been in the fire service?
39 years

What are your memorable moments as a firefighter?
I have so many over my 39+ years it's hard to single out any as "the most...", but some examples include organizing a regional fire muster when I was 19 years old that lasted for seven years, serving as the youngest President ever in a 70+ year-old volunteer firefighter association in 1979, and of course many memorable incidents. Most recently, leading a county-wide fire service historical committee in the county where I grew up, and developing a web site to share the photos, videos, and stories has been very meaningful for me, and we are just getting started. Check it out at

What contributions have you (and your department) made in your community?  
I have lived in a small rural community in the northern Sierra Mountains for the past nine years. Our small volunteer FD in Plumas Eureka has been a leader in regional cooperative efforts through the Plumas County Fire Chiefs Association, especially in training and mutual aid. This benefits our immediate community in many ways. We also run a very low cost fire department, with older but safe engines, and were recently proud to be recognized with a Class 4/4Y ISO rating. We are also working on Firewise Community (NFPA) recognition.


Cancer is a significant threat to emergency responders. Numerous studies have shown that firefighters are at a great risk for getting several types of cancer as compared with the general population. As a first responder, it is critical that you educate yourself on your risks and what you can do to minimize those risks.
Early detection is key to combatting cancer, so make sure you are getting regular screenings and tell your doctor that you are a firefighter. Also take steps to reduce your risks of exposure to cancer-causing carcinogens. This includes full and proper use of PPE throughout response and overhaul, washing PPE and hoods after response, never storing dirty PPE in your car or house, and washing your face and hands immediately after response and before touching food.
Below are resources to help you and your department takes action against cancer.

Tools and Templates 
The Firefighter Cancer Support Network released this white paper highlighting the cancer problem, risks firefighters face, and steps you can take to lessen those risks.
Immediate Actions to Protect Against Cancer
The Firefighter Cancer Support Network provides these 11 actions you can take now to protect yourself against cancer.
This sample sign from the Firefighter Cancer Support Network reinforces that gear should not be taken into living and sleeping quarters.
Wash Your Hood Sunday
This sign from the Firefighter Cancer Support Network promotes "Wash Your Hood Sunday," a reminder that hoods need to be washed on a regular basis. Implement Wash Your Hood Sunday in your department.
LION teamed up with the NVFC and other fire service organizations to create this infographic on cancer in the fire service and steps you can take to protect yourself.
LION teamed up with the NVFC and other fire service organizations to release these five recommended SOPs that will help prevent cancer and exposure to carcinogens.
LION compiled these seven questions you should ask the company that is maintaining your gear.
LION created this infographic to provide the top five do's and don'ts when it comes to turnout gear inpsection and cleaning.
FireRescue1 and Globe teamed up to produce this quick guidance for the fire service on how to rid firefighting PPE of contaminents and simple ways firefighters can protect themselves against cancer with PPE.
Sample Fire Personnel Toxic Exposure Form
Exposure to toxic elements can have a significant impact on a firefighter's health. In the event of exposure it is critical to document the details of the incident. This from from the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department provides an example of a toxic exposure reporting form.
Sample Personal Call Log
It is important to keep a record of the details of each call you run for easy reference in case you run into a health issue at a later time. This sample personal call log entry from the Firefighter Cancer Support Network shows what information should be included in your personal call log.
Joint Cancer Initiative Program
New Hanover County Fire-Rescue and Wilmington Fire Department in North Carolina launched a Joint Cancer Initiative Program to reduce the risk of cancer for their firefighters. Through the initiative, the departments are providing decon kits, protective equipment, and reference documents, and are also charging their personnel with personal accountability. 

Sample No Smoking Policy
The NVFC's Heart-Healthy Firefighter Program developed a sample no-smoking policy and provides the steps a department can take to successfully implement a no-smoking policy.

Training and Videos
This course, available on-demand in the NVFC Virtual Classroom, covers the scope of the cancer problem in the fire service, challenges firefighters face, the role of leadership, actions individuals can take to protect themselves from cancer, and more.
This course, available on-demand in the NVFC Virtual Classroom, educates fire and rescue personnel on the criticality of continuing the use of SCBA during overhaul where smoke, products of combustion, and inhalation dangers still exist. The hazards present in the atmosphere during overhaul are identified as well as the effects of these products on an individual’s health, and recommendations are made for appropriate agency policies and procedures.
The NVFC teamed up with subject matter experts to provide firefighters with quick tips and best practices when it comes to using, replacing, cleaning, and funding PPE in order to prevent injury, illness, and death from improper use of PPE.
This video highlights Boston firefighters who have died or have had their lives changed due to cancer.
This video from the Firemen's Association of the State of New York tells the stories of six cancer survivors from across New York State and advocates for cancer presumption legislation.
Additional Resources 
The NVFC held a Cancer Roundtable at its 2015 Spring Board Meeting that produced tips and best practices for limiting exposure.
This article by Timothy Elliott of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network provides actions volunteer firefighters can take to prevent cancer as well as get help in the event of a cancer diagnosis.
This article by NVFC board member Brian McQueen shares his story of receiving a cancer diagnosis and why early detection and preventative steps are so critical in the fire service.
The NVFC’s Put It Out campaign is designed to help firefighters quit smoking and assist departments in establishing no-smoking policies.
The Firefighter Cancer Support Network provides support and assistance to firefighters and their families in the event of a cancer diagnosis, as well as resources for firefighter cancer research and prevention.
The Fire Smoke Coalition has resources and training to help firefighters “Know Your Smoke” and prevent exposure to toxic environments. 
The National Cancer Institute provides information on screenings, prevention, treatment, and more.
The Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending mesothelioma and the suffering caused by it. Firefighters and paramedics are at risk of exposure to asbestos and other dangerous substances, which could lead to cancers such as mesothelioma.
The Mesothelioma Group provides information for firefighters about mesothelioma and safety tips to take.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted a study of 30,000 firefighters from three large cities and found higher rates of several types of cancers, and of all cancers combined, than the U.S. population as a whole. Read a summary of the findings.
This 2006 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reviewed 32 previous studies on firefighters and determined that firefighters have probable higher risk for three types of cancers, with a possible higher risk for nine other cancers.
State Firefighter Cancer Presumption Laws
Many states have laws establishing a presumption that certain types of cancer contracted by firefighters are the result of duty-related exposure. These laws typically allow the families of firefighters who contract these types of cancer to receive compensation in various forms, including through enhanced retirement or pension benefits, workers compensation, and/or death and disability benefits. 
Most state laws stipulate various conditions that must be met in order for the cancer presumption to be valid, including that the firefighter have served for a certain length of time, that the firefighter have refrained from using tobacco products, that the firefighter had a physical examination upon joining the department, etc. These conditions are intended to protect the state or department (depending on which entity is responsible for paying the benefit) from having to compensate families of firefighters whose cancer was not contracted as a result of duty-related exposure.
Not all state presumptive laws extend coverage to volunteer firefighters. In some cases, state laws explicitly extend coverage only to full-time paid firefighters. In other cases, state laws apply exclusively to benefits that only full-time paid firefighters receive. The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) maintains a publicly-accessible web page listing cancer presumption laws in different states.
In May 2015, the NVFC polled our Board of Directors to identify states that have cancer presumption laws that explicitly cover volunteer firefighters. Based on the responses we have been able to identify laws in the following states that extend coverage to volunteer firefighters.  
If you are aware of a cancer presumption law in another state that explicitly covers volunteers, please e-mail Dave Finger, NVFC Chief of Legislative and Regulatory Affairs, at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .
Several of the NVFC’s state member associations are working on cancer presumption legislation at the state level. For information about these efforts, please contact the member association in your state directly.

Share the Load Videos

The following videos provide more information about firefighter behavioral health and the help that is available to firefighters, EMS providers, and family members in need.

Warning Signs to Know

This brief video alerts first responders and their families to common warning signs of five behavioral health issues firefighters and EMTs may face. Share this video with your department members, and use the links above to find more information about warning signs and what to do if you see them.

Interview with Heather Schafer

This interview with National Volunteer Fire Council CEO Heather Schafer discusses firefighter behavioral health and the help that is available through the Share the Load program. 

Interview with Dr. Richard Gasaway

This interview with Dr. Richard Gasaway of Situational Awareness Matters talks about firefighter behavioral health and the help that is available through the Fire/EMS Helpline.

Interview with Ron Siarnicki

This interview with Chief Ron Siarnicki, Executive Director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, talks about firefighter behavioral health and the importance of seeking help. 

Interview with Lori Mercer

This interview with Lori Mercer, founder of, talks about the challenges that firefighter families face and the help that is available to strengthen family bonds. 

Interview with Dan Mercer

This interview with White Hall City Firefighter Dan Mercer talks about firefighter behavioral health and the help that is available through the Fire/EMS Helpline. 

Interview with John Salka

This interview with Retired FDNY Battalion Chief John Salka talks about substance and alcohol abuse in the fire service and the importance of seeking help. 

Fire Prevention and Safety

There are many resources available to help you spread important fire prevention and safety information in your community.

Fire Corps
The NVFC's fire prevention resource center is hosted by Fire Corps. Click here to access fire prevention and life safety education resources, including the Fire Corps Guide to Fire and Life Safety Education, resources for smoke alarm and home safety check programs, and fire prevention tips sheets.

NVFC Virtual Classroom
Check out the NVFC's online training platform for courses including Fire Corps in Public Education and Conducting Home Safety Checks.

Wildland Fire Assessment Program
The NVFC and U.S. Forest Service teamed up to develop this program that trains first responders and support personnel how to properly conduct home assessments in the wildland-urban interface to help make communities more fire adapted.

Fire Prevention Week
Each October, the NFPA sponsors a national awareness week to educate the public on important fire prevention topics.

NFPA Smoke Alarm Resources
The NFPA has developed many resources and materials to help educators spread smoke alarm safety messages in their community and implement smoke alarm installation programs.

Fire Safety for Children produces this webpage that provides resources and tips to share in your community to prevent fires and protect children.

USFA Install. Inspect. Protect. Campaign
This national awareness campaign includes materials you can use to spread important smoke alarm safety messages in your community.

USFA Smoking and Home Fires Campaign
This national campaign provides information, tips, and resources for preventing smoking-related home fires.

USFAA Educational Foundation
This site provides free educational publications that you can use to help promote a variety of fire prevention and life safety topics in your community.