Firefighting is one of the most dangerous jobs you can sign up for.
But the biggest risk today is no longer the fires they fight, but the resulting smoke, filled with toxins. According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, almost two out of every three firefighters who died in the line of duty since 2002 died of cancer.
Last week, it hit close to home.
On Jan. 20, the Dickinson Fire Department lost Captain Hilary Hartman, a 32-year firefighting veteran.
Hartman’s sister, Monica Forster described him with a smile, “He loved his work, and more importantly, he loved his family, his firefighting family.”
“We’re feeling the same sense of grief and the same sense of loss as you would with a family member. It’s very tangible,” shared Dickinson Fire Chief Bob Sivak.
Forster was his caretaker and ‘side-kick’ throughout his eight-month battle with T-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“People would say, ‘You’re really his guardian angel,’ and I said, ‘Well, you know, he’s worth it,'” Forster shared.
It’s a type of cancer that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says firefighters are 50 percent more likely to be diagnosed with than the average person.
“Today’s interior environment in a structure fire is toxic. Not that it wasn’t 30 years ago, but much more so today but our whole interior environment literally is plastic,” Chief Sivak explained.
“When you dial 911, our brave firefighters have your back. So look around, look around your house. Look at how many products are actually petroleum-based products,” Forster added.
“When a firefighter is in that environment, they’re literally working in and crawling through a pool of fuel,” Sivak expanded.
Here’s just a small list of cancers that firefighters are more prone to:
- 100% increased risk of getting mesothelioma
- 62% increased risk of getting esophageal cancer
- 102% increased risk of testicular cancer
- Over 50% increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and leukemia
“These aren’t guesses, these aren’t, ‘Oh maybe we have this’. This is proven nationally,” Chief Sivak added.
Although protective gear and education for first responders have improved since Hartman began over three decades ago, the risk remains.
“I think it’s still a scary thought, but when you think about it, we need firefighters, and these firefighters go into their career because of their passion,” Forster said.
A North Dakota statute says firefighters will be compensated for disability or death related to certain diseases, including a list of cancers. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is on that list.
Hartman still has a pending claim with North Dakota Workforce Safety and Insurance. The hope is it will go through and take care of medical bills left behind.