How to deal with a firefighter's greatest enemy

Cancer is scary and troubling and it will keep us up at night, but we are all in this together


By Billy Galvin

A good friend of mine, Scott Ziegler, posted an article about fire helmets and cancer. It caused quite a debate in the comments section. I must say, in reading the comments it really surprised me just how many guys were currently battling cancer. I thought, wow this is crazy how many people in our trade battle cancer. But then again, look how many people battle cancer period. I don't have to think hard or look far. My mother just battled cancer a few years back, as well as my aunt and my grandfather. It is everywhere and it scares me.

I know we as firefighters are at a greater risk, and yes, part of the reason is some of our own fault, like not wearing tanks in smoked-out environments, but some things you just can't avoid. Like that terrible high carbon black smoke that takes days to come out of your skin.

Photo/City of Olympia

My question is: is it one particular fire or a bunch of different fires that cause the cancer? Either way, you will always have crews running in because that's what we do. It's our job. It's dangerous and we know that.

It reminds me of the CTE epidemic going on in the NFL. It is a very scary issue right now and I'm sure it's scary to the active and retired players, yet I truly believe that you will always have guys willing to take the risk and hit the gridiron. It's just like how firefighters will always be there to step up and do our jobs. I just think we need to be more aware that although we came home from a job safe, we may not have walked away unscathed. It might be two months, it might be 20 years — who knows?

When I heard that 1 out of 4 people will get cancer in their lifetime, I thought, I'm screwed. Cancer has hit our engine house twice, and even though it hit close to home, you still saw guys tankless on scenes smoking cigarettes and chewing tobacco. Recently, we have made a conscious effort to minimize our exposure and live a little healthier. For example, the station is now smoke-free and some guys quit chewing. We are trying and I think that's all you can do. That, and keeping your fingers crossed along with some Irish luck never hurts.

As for the helmets, it's your call. I have a dirty lid. It's part of the fire department culture that Scott and I work in. You need to understand that where Scott works, a dirty lid is the parking ticket of cancer offenses on a fire scene. I just saw a boss from a squad smoking a cigar inside the house at my last fire. It is what it is. Old dogs don't learn new tricks, they rip the face off the guy teaching the new trick. So it's scary and troubling and it will keep us up at night, but we are all in this together.

Thanks and stay safe out there.

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