By: Larry Schultz
I am taking a break from my typical anarchist message and, pleading with you to read this very personal story as a personal assessment tool. I am a fire service traditionalist to the core and my style of writing is always intended to offer an opposing (or alternative) view of what I term the “overzealous safety culture”. My issue(s) are not, nor have they ever been about safety itself, but our approach to assessing and managing risk, without using emotional coercion.
I am going to attempt to address a true risk / health and safety concern, and do so without violating my, no emotional coercion rule. It’s my personal experience and I share to give people something to consider. Before you start jumping to the conclusion that this will be an on-line conversion where I join the “I hate old-school” fan club, simmer down a minute.
My plan is to share a very personal story of cancer and how it has the potential to affect more than ourselves. I always give a shout-out at the beginning of my sermons to the person(s) who get me so twisted up about something that I have to write about it. This one goes out to two people. First is my son, who is my hero of heroes and that’s all that needs to be said about this guy. The next is one of coolest dudes I know Donnie Wedding (DLW) and a brother Traditions Training instructor. Over the past month, DLW and I have been walking through this issue (cancer) together, bouncing thoughts, ideas and frustrations off of one another. The irony of these two recipients is that in spite of never meeting one, DLW and my son Joe were cut from the same exact mold.
While the information and focus on firefighter cancer is a reasonably new topic, over the past 10 years, various studies have concluded the relationship between increasing cancer rates and firefighters. Each day, we are exposed to multiple cancer causing agents, through both inhalation and absorption of carcinogens. The exposures come from structure fires, auto fires, dumpster fires etc. This occurs not only during the incipient and free-burning stages, but well in to the overhaul stage and after. These issues far exceed exposure to carbon monoxide and smoke my friends.
The list of cancers include Testicular, Multiple Myeloma, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Skin cancer, Brain cancer, Breast cancer and a whole host of others. In fact, studies are showing more aggressive types of cancer at a younger age then the civilian population. If this isn’t depressing enough, the fact that we are regularly being exposed to multiple agents through multiple routes – multiple times a shift, we are prone to get multiple types of cancer. The hotter the environment and the dirtier we get, the greater the exposure; the lungs and dermis becoming the greatest routes of entry in to our bodies/organs.
On December 31st 2013, I was driving home from Pennsylvania to celebrate the New Years in anticipation of what promised to be “a new – new start”. About 10 minutes in to my drive, I got a phone call from my son. My boy is and has always been as steady and stoic as a man could be and never gets flustered with anything in life. In typical fashion as part of a normal conversation, he told me he was just diagnosed with testicular cancer. Unless you have experienced this, you have no idea what that feeling is like. I couldn’t even comprehend it, let alone figure out how I would tell his mother and sisters.
Like most fathers, I tend to be a ‘fixer” of things, only this time, I hadn’t a clue how to fix this. For me that means digging deep and educating myself about it, and started to read everything I could about testicular cancer. When I entered the keyword for the search, the very first link that appeared was a study on firefighters and the exponentially elevated risk they faced for testicular (and other) cancers. The more I read, the more I read. The more I kept reading, the bigger the pit in my stomach. Remember, the nexus between cancer and firefighting studies are relatively new. The fact is, that common sense always told me that the things we breathe in are pretty gnarly, but I rarely considered things like dermal absorption, post incident exposure contamination (through dirty gear, uniforms and soot) and cross contamination.
So here is my confession. Like most, I loved every part of being a “big city” fireman, most importantly the heavy workload. When I say every part, I include the persona of dirty gear and the sooty look and smell that comes along with it. It wasn’t uncommon to go to a few fires a shift, so why shower… in fact, my goal at the end of each tour-of- duty was to look like Pig-Pen (a character from Peanuts for you youngins). I honestly loved every bit of that.
My gear was always in the back of my vehicle when I left work; I would go home after being up for 24 straight and fall asleep wherever I could find a spot, still in my raunchy clothes and covered in soot. It wouldn’t be long before my little dude would wake up, come down stairs and hang out with me while he watched TV, and I snored. My uniforms, t-shirts, washed with his cloths and my shoes/boots trampled plenty of crap into the carpet that he crawled around on. I can’t tell you the number of times; I put him in to my gear. If you know me, you know I am a “good hair kind of guy” lol. Many of you can relate that for days after a good fire, you couldn’t get the stench of smoke out of your hair. You would smell like that for days at a time. My friends, this went on for years and years and I am certain, that I exposed my family selfishly and unnecessarily.
There is no history of testicular cancer in my family and my son had zero medical history as well. While there is no definitive proof that his diagnosis was caused by secondary exposure to carcinogens that I exposed him to, I know this to be true: cross contamination exposure to carcinogens is very real and those exposed are at greater risk; I exposed him and my wife (and daughters later on) to that crap for years and lastly, I will have to continue to think about this every day and wonder if I caused or contributed to his cancer.
This is where hypocrisy enters the picture. I never wore a nomex-hood in my career (stupid), in fact my crew would call it (my hood) my personal department issued handkerchief. I worked towards being the last one to have to mask-up and the first to take it off; all part of the identity. How stupid do I feel now?
You can be “salty” (yes that’s still a good thing), without “looking” the role, by simply letting your actions speak louder than your appearance or attitude. You know the right things to do (wear your mask, take a shower when you get back, wash your gear regularly, no gear in the living space and wash your uniforms separate for other items), so do the right thing for you and your family.
My son is in full remission (continues to undergo regular follow-ups) and has blessed us with our first grandchild (which was not supposed to happen as a result of his illness), a true miracle.