Hey Firefighter… Cancer is Real… Believe Me!

By Past Chief Brian F. McQueen

There are two young volunteer firefighters who have become great friends through the fire service; they enjoy the friendships and elation of helping others on their worst day. 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 new probationary firefighters’ dreams and their wanting 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 persona and education to reduce this disease among our brother and sister firefighters.

I get sick to my stomach every time I read in The Secret List from Chief Billy Goldfeder of a young firefighter who passes after his courageous battle with cancer, leaving behind 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 the 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 should sound 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 wife and three young children, 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.

In no way should Firefighter Pagliaro, or his loving family, endure the overwhelming medical and travel bills that accompanies 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 out in my mind from the many who have shared their stories with me after learning of 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, including New York, local governments, and their compensation boards, often are voicing their opinions against cancer presumptive laws for firefighters. But in New York State, 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 State save over three billion dollars a year in their service! They are fighting the same fires, 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 has been more education and preventative measures being taught in fire training classes across the United States than ever before in the history of the fire service. We are 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? Like providing a second hood or gear after a major fire so that a firefighter’s gear can be washed properly. Or 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 practices that have surfaced in recent years, 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, and fires are burning hotter, faster, and more toxic as a result.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s Firefighter Cancer Alliance has developed information that provides 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, AZ. Organizations such as the National Volunteer Fire Council have identified cancer as a major issue affecting volunteers today and have earmarked resources on their web site 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 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, NY, 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 that protect you.

In closing let me say that three years ago, after being told by my oncologist that ”You Have Cancer,” and your type of cancer is one of the fastest growing cancers in the fire service today, I would have never 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.

[Note: Ask your Representative to support the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act using the NVFC Legislative Action Center. Find additional resources for cancer awareness and prevention at www.nvfc.org/cancer.]

Brian F. McQueen is Past Chief Whitesboro Fire Department, a New York Director for the National Volunteer Fire Council, co-Chair of the NVFC’s Cancer Subcommittee, Director- Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, and Life Member of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs. He is also a retired Public School Administrator for Whitesboro Central School.