Defending Our Heroes

Numbers don’t lie. As firefighters we have been looking at numbers for quite a few years now and we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that cancer kills firefighters. We are seeing alarming numbers day after day, study after study. 


The biggest problem that we are seeing now is that when you have an identified problem, but no clear solution, then fear, confusion and most dangerous of all, apathy, can set in.

If you go to any fire conference, read just about any emergency journal you see the topic of cancer being brought up everywhere. It seems that every equipment manufacturer, supplier and salesman have an “angle” on firefighter cancer and how there is some magical bullet to turn the tides on this serious problem. In a way this is good, cancer is having a light shined on it and people are starting to realize the problem, however we are now getting into the situation where “cancer is cool.” By that I mean companies and people often confuse talking about the cancer issue with truly “taking action.”

In a way this is good, cancer is having a light shined on it and people are starting to realize the problem, however we are now getting into the situation where “cancer is cool.” By that I mean companies and people often confuse talking about the cancer issue with truly “taking action.”

The reality is that we have been talking a long time, but not a lot of action is happening. One of the focuses of the North Carolina Firefighter Cancer Alliance (NCFCA) is that we want to do more than talk, we want to empower firefighters and departments to take the steps needed to reduce carcinogen exposure and implement tools and policies that will ensure a healthy future for our occupation.

When you take time to travel around and really listen to the concerns and comments from departments, chief officers, company officers and even line firefighters, cancer is a big issue but they often feel unable to do anything. The reasons that individuals and organizations cannot make any positive progress in cancer prevention generally fall into two different categories: the first — “We don’t know how” or “We cannot afford to do anything.”

The NCFCA’s response to these comments are “we can show you, and it is not as expensive as you think.” We are committed to helping our brothers and sisters in the fire service by giving the tools and knowledge that are needed to take action against cancer.

One of the biggest and most daunting obstacles to any new program is the budget. In many ways the budget sets the course of the ship so to speak. With equipment costs rising and in many areas the fund base shrinking and the divide that occurs is where wellness programs like cancer awareness and prevention fall. When your department is at the budgetary mercy of the municipality, county, or other entity, there are still ways to make progress in regards to cancer awareness and prevention. 

For the most part, the hardest part of implementation of cancer awareness and prevention programs in a department is just starting. The NCFCA had developed a few tools to help start this process. The first step is use of the video “Defending Our Heroes” which was produced in conjunction with the North Carolina Association Fire Chiefs.

“Defending Our Heroes” is a video that addresses cancer in the fire service from two different directions. Firstly, it discusses cancer from the point of view of firefighters. It interviews several firefighters with their own stories of how cancer impacted their lives and careers. Secondly these same firefighters talk about how the public needs to understand the effects of cancer and how they can help support firefighters in their own communities. This 10-minute video has already been proven to shine light on this plague in the fire service. Using this will both motivate firefighters to take action and help the public to see how they can help their local departments.

In addition to the “Defending Our Heroes” video, the NCFCA has provided a comprehensive decontamination program that covers decontamination of personnel and gear from on scene all the way to processing gear at the station afterward. The “Concord Decontamination Model” was designed to show how utilizing methods and inexpensive tools can greatly reduce the cancer exposures of most firefighters. The “Concord Decontamination Model” consist of both video content and a model SOG to help quickly implement the process.

At the recent Midwinters Chiefs Conference in Concord, the “Defending Our Heroes” video was shown during the opening ceremony which lead up to the NCFCA giving out 50 decontamination buckets to departments who were seeking a starting point for their own efforts.  Several of the departments that received the buckets mentioned that they were seeking a way to start a program and this was the jumping off point.

In order for the fire service to continue to progress, we have to change. Not only do we have to change how we address cancer, we also have to change our traditions. No longer can we think of dirty damaged gear as a badge of honor. Also doffing our SCBA during salvage and overhaul don’t make you a better firefighter. We have to instill in our new generation of firefighters the need to keep their gear clean and keep their mask on, through the entire time on fire scene.

As for the communities we serve, we have to let them know what battles we are fighting, especially with health and wellness. Use of information materials such as the “Defending Our Heroes” video and teaching them about how they can help us be safer is paramount to helping us in the greatest fight of our generation.

(Special Note: Visit to see the video.)

Travis McGaha is Executive Board Member of North Carolina Firefighter Cancer Alliance.

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