Whether it’s an injury from falling debris or smoke inhalation, firefighting is a dangerous job that requires physical and mental fitness and agility, said Matt Tobia, chief of Harrisonburg Fire Department.

However, one of the most significant risks that may be less well-known, harder to spot, and more difficult to track is the risk of cancer in all its forms, which is significantly higher among firefighters who face repeat exposure to carcinogens in their work.

“Being exposed to carcinogens is the same as falling off a ladder. Even though cancer doesn’t show up in the same way as falling off a ladder does,” Tobia said.

The International Association of Firefighters labor union and the Firefighter Cancer Support Network designate January Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month. The organizations promote different issues related to firefighter cancer throughout the month with the social media tagline “extinguish cancer.”

“The reality is, what’s really killing firefighters today is cancer,” said Matt Tobia, chief of Harrisonburg Fire Department. “It is probably the leading topic of discussion in the American fire service today.”

According to a 2015 study of nearly 30,000 firefighters completed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, firefighters showed higher rates of certain types of cancer than the general population.

According to the International Association of Firefighters, cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters.

The risk of cancer became a reality for Anthony Whetzel, a 33-year-old firefighter from Broadway, who was diagnosed with colon cancer in April 2017.

“He started noticing some things not right with his body. He went to the doctor, and they said it’s something that was pretty common,” Drenna Whetzel said. “Then, a year later, it got worse. There was bleeding, huge weight loss, no appetite or anything.”

When Anthony Whetzel returned to the doctor, he had a colonoscopy, and they determined he had cancer. Because Whetzel had no family history of colon cancer, Drenna Whetzel said people in the couple’s network encouraged them to find support through firefighter cancer organizations.

“Just a superb guy, very dedicated, cared about people,” Holloway said. “We were all hoping and praying there would be a more positive outcome.”

When he was diagnosed, Drenna Whetzel said she was seven months pregnant with their daughter, and the couple also had a three-year-old son.

To qualify for workers’ compensation benefits at the time, Virginia’s firefighter cancer presumption law covered seven kinds of cancer and required the worker to have 12 years of full-time firefighting work, Whetzel said.

“We determined it was occupational cancer. But he had colon cancer, and that wasn’t cancer that was under the firefighter cancer laws,” Drenna Whetzel said.

Anthony Whetzel was a volunteer with Broadway Volunteer Fire Department for one year, according to Drenna Whetzel. Then, he was hired by Rockingham County Fire and Rescue and worked there for 11 years, racking up hundreds of fire runs over the years and potential exposure to carcinogens.

“With each of those, it could be any of the fires,” Drenna Whetzel said. “When houses burn down, all of the chemicals put together to build houses – people don’t realize how many environmental elements there are to just building a house.”

Since the first year was not full-time, he could not qualify for benefits under Virginia’s firefighter cancer presumption law.

Additionally, colon cancer was not one of the forms of cancer covered under the laws in Virginia, Whetzel said.

By the time Anthony Whetzel died, at almost 34 years of age, in September 2018, Drenna Whetzel had said the family had accrued enormous costs for treatment, and Drenna Whetzel had been caring for both a newborn and her sick husband for months.

The couple fought for workers’ compensation for Anthony Whetzel’s illness before he died, Drenna Whetzel said. A member of the IAFF labor union, Anthony Whetzel continued to work as a first responder until three weeks before his death, Drenna Whetzel said.

“He worried so much about whether the kids would be OK or I would be OK,” Drenna Whetzel said. “He didn’t want us to have to struggle with any of that.”

While it was too late for her family to receive benefits, Drenna Whetzel joined members of the IAFF at the Virginia General Assembly in 2019 and 2020, hoping for a change in the law so no other family would have to go through the same thing, she said.

“I never want another family to have to worry about are they covered under workers compensation for this cancer that they’ve received from doing a job that they love,” Drenna Whetzel said. “I never want another fire wife to have to bury her husband and not be able to say that it was occupational cancer.”

In 2020, the General Assembly passed a law adding colon, testicular, and brain cancers to the list of presumed work-related illnesses for firefighters.

Harrisonburg Fire Department has a standard operating procedure that was put in place in April 2019, specifically for reducing the risk of cancer. Tobia said he is enthusiastic about adapting to new and changing information to reduce the risk of carcinogens exposure.

“It identifies all of the different things that we do to reduce the risk of developing cancer. We work very hard to ensure that even though this is an incredibly dangerous job full of risks, we are doing all of the things that we can do to reduce that risk,” Tobia said.

Standards for the department include hoses that carry engine exhaust out of fire stations, two sets of gear, and special washing machines for decontaminating equipment in HFD stations, Tobia said. HFD firefighters also receive annual health and cancer screenings, Tobia said.

“If they go to a fire and their personal protective equipment gets contaminated during the fire, they can come back to the fire station, put their second set of gear in service while they are washing their first set of gear. They always have a clean set of gear to be able to change into,” Tobia said. “Huge deal.”

Additionally, members of HFD formed an HFD Cancer Workgroup. They presented a list of 20-plus potential recommendations to the department to continue improving its cancer risk-reduction efforts per the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.

Rockingham County Fire and Rescue has put many similar initiatives in place and works closely with local representatives of the American Cancer Society.

The American Cancer Society has a specific phone number firefighters can call for cancer support, said Whitney Minnick, local representative for the American Cancer Society, through a partnership with IAFF. The hotline can be reached by calling 877-901-7848.

“We want to do what we can do to make people healthier so they can have a long career and a healthy retirement,” Holloway said.

(1) comment

Jo Acosta

This is a well-researched and VERY well-written article. It is worth entering a journo award effort. Kudos to the author. It is also heart-braking to hear such a story. How did we let insurance companies take over our health-care? Something needs to change.

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