Cancer has caused 70% of line-of-duty deaths for firefighters, according to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network. Departments are trying to figure out safer ways to protect their men and women, and for smaller cities and towns, that can come at a huge expense.
A third-generation firefighter in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, won't let money stop him from keeping his fellow firefighters safe after he lost his dad to occupational cancer.
For Fitchburg Fire Captain Patrick Roy, firefighting isn't just his job — it's his passion.
"My grandfather was on the job for 40 years, my father was on the job for 38 years — it's the best job in the world," said Roy. "I chased fires as a young kid and I wanted to be involved in the worst way."
Right now, his uncle is the fire chief, and his brother and two cousins working alongside him. You could say it's a family affair. This profession he calls his passion comes at a cost.
"My father died in 2012 from occupational cancer. My brother who is on the job — we both found him passed away," said Roy.
He describes his father as an aggressive firefighter with an old-school mentality. He said it's been painful to watch his mother spend her golden years without her husband.
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Cancer killed his father's ladder truck partner not long after. Roy calls it an epidemic in his profession.
"Their mentality was, 'Hey, kid, it's a tough job. People are going to die. It is what it is,' and today, knowing what we know, we shouldn't being accepting that," said Roy.
Roy has made it his mission not only to educate fellow firefighters, but to prevent cancer in his department. Some of the ways to do that is to make sure firefighters are washing their gear after fires. In years previous, having to dry out your gear could take hours, even days. There wasn't always enough time to wash between fires. So fast-acting dryers or a second set of gear are new solutions. The main goal is to wash out the cancer-causing carcinogens so the next time they use the gear and they sweat, they aren't going into their open pores and into their bodies — something that can become deadly over a 30 40-year career.
"Two sets of turnout gear is something we are really pushing in our cancer awareness classes," said Roy.
The only thing that seems to stand in their way is the cost. It's about $3,200 for one set of gear, and with over 80 firefighters in this department, that's a huge expense for a gateway community like Fitchburg.
"I think everybody knows the money in these cities and towns are not falling from the sky," said Roy.
Roy and the department have looked to federal grants. Out of his 15 years with the department, he's written and been awarded or every single year. They've been able to buy a ladder truck, an engine, a dryer, and now a second set of turnout gear.
Roy isn't stopping here, though. He wants to work with local hospitals on getting scans for firefighters to try to detect cancer earlier, something that his father didn't do.
"I am trying to get the word out there so somebody else's father or mother can be around," said Roy.
Roy will be recognized next week by the firefighting community for all his efforts in making firefighting more safe.