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Hey firefighter, cancer is real … believe me!

A retired fire chief battling cancer spreads awareness of firefighter cancer prevention, legislation and challenges


By Brian F. McQueen, NVFC

Somewhere in the U.S. are two young volunteer firefighters who have become great friends through the fire service; 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 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 of a young firefighter who passes after his courageous battle with cancer, leaving behind a beautiful wife and 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 and the 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.

Firefighter battling cancer for the third time

I’m saddened to hear about my good friend firefighter/paramedic Anthony Pagliaro, 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:

In no way should firefighter 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 that sticks in my mind from the many of them 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.

Cancer presumptive laws for firefighters

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 State, only the career firefighters are covered, whereas the volunteers are not.

What these compensation boards do not realize is that volunteer firefighters save New York State over three billion dollars a year with their service.

Common sense and research tells us volunteers 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.

Preventing firefighter cancer

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? 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, and fires are burning hotter, faster and more toxic as a result.

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. 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 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 replacing and training a new firefighter, providing training such as this can enhance the long-term goals of retaining well-trained, healthy firefighters.

H.R.931 - Firefighter Cancer Registry Act

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, before being told by my oncologist, “You have cancer,” and your type of cancer is one of the fastest growing cancers in the fire service today, I never would have 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.

About the author
Brian F. McQueen: Past Chief Whitesboro Fire Department; New York State Director and Executive aboard of the National Volunteer Fire Council; Director- Firemen’s Association of the State of New York; New York State Association of Fire Chiefs- Life Member; Retired Public School Administrator- Whitesboro Central School.

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