Never Lose Focus: Building a Cancer-free Fire Service

Never would I have thought my job as firefighter could be killing me. It's that time of year again; the time when I have to spend two days in New York City, undergoing tests that will confirm or deny if cancer has returned to my body. If you haven't been affected by cancer, then you probably don't even realize the thoughts that keep running through my mind at this time of the year. No one does; at least not those who were never confronted with the words, “You have cancer.” 

We must realize that cancer affects more than me or you. It affects our family, our friends, our brothers and sisters, and co-workers. In the words of my good friend who lost his life to cancer way too soon, “You really don't understand the impact cancer has on your life… until it hits you directly in the face.” We need to be progressive in the way we educate our firefighters of all ages. Just two months ago, I lost another great friend to cancer, Chief Wayne Smoulcey of the Willowvale (New York) Fire Department. He leaves behind a three-year-old and a newborn baby girl. It’s not fair! 

For me, the month of July is one filled with mixed emotions. Undergoing intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) five years ago, so many thoughts ran through my mind. Was this treatment going to provide me a longer life? Would there be a day that I would be able to hug my grandchild? Would I be able to continue riding with my team at the Whitesboro FD? Would I have to write my obituary?  

In our fire stations, career or volunteer, we can find two firefighters who have become great friends through the fire service. Unfortunately, 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. This statistic resonates across the United States in station training rooms, engine rooms, meeting rooms and in homes of those who dedicate their time-saving lives and property. 

We are making some positive improvements in fighting cancer in the fire service. Specifically, in the way we handle ourselves at incidents and trainings.  Our fire service needs to embed cancer prevention education in every recruit school across the 50 states. The leadership in our stations needs to continue to take a serious, proactive approach to protect those that they command. Our government officials must listen to the needs of our fire service leaders. It’s not the same fire station it was years ago. We are walking into fires that more likely should be treated as a hazmat incident. What used to allow victims 13-minutes to escape a fire, now is down to 3.5 minutes. The need for us to take care of our own is never as pressing as it is in today’s fire service. 

Having lived through six intense weeks of treatment, I learned some valuable lessons on life. I learned what was important in life. I learned how to better understand my family, my friends, and my loved ones. I learned how to treat people better. I learned the Man upstairs is giving me a second chance in life. I learned not to waste this precious time. 

The key to building a cancer-free fire and emergency service is focused on our leadership and our fire service using the tools associated with the Lavender Ribbon Report, a joint report released by the VCOS and the NVFC. You can also find resources on the NFPA website.

The material is there; the training is there…now just be the initiative that takes it to the next level. 


Brian McQueen
is retired chief of Whitesboro (New York) Volunteer Fire Department. He participated in “Surviving the Job” webinar.

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