By Dave Greenslit
Firefighting is a job that takes a lot out of its men and women. For some, the job takes everything out of them. More than half of the firefighters who die in the line of duty are killed by heart attacks, according to The New York Times. Read More...
As a camera pans, three Boston firefighters sit in front of a wall plastered with images of their fallen comrades.
Their colleagues did not perish in a rampaging fire or in a sundered building.
They all succumbed to cancer.
Their stories were on full display during a screening last week of a new, emotional video on the toll cancer has exacted on Boston’s firefighting force. Since 1990, more than 160 Boston firefighters have died from the disease, fire officials said, and every year, 20 firefighters are diagnosed with cancer.
“The first thing that went through my head when the doctor said I had cancer was that, ‘I’m going to die,’ ” Firefighter Mark Matthews says in the video. “The question I asked him was: ‘When?’ ”
The video shows women posting on the blank wall pictures of their husbands lost to cancer. A firefighter tearfully recalls a colleague buried close by. Family members hold the uniform hats of their loved ones.
“It’s killing our members, simple as that,” Commissioner Joseph E. Finn says in the video. “The one thing that is going to kill firefighters more quickly than a building collapse, more quickly than getting trapped — it’s cancer.”
The video is part of Finn’s appeal to the city’s 1,400 firefighters to always wear their protective gear — including hoods and air masks — even as a blaze retreats and begins to smolder. Chronic exposure to heat and smoke toxins leaves firefighters vulnerable and at risk, officials said.
The video starts with Firefighter Kevin McNiff, a 27-year member of the force, sitting in front of a wall of portraits posted on the third floor at Boston Fire Department headquarters. He suffers from stage four kidney cancer that has spread to his lungs.
“Cancer is taking the job I love away from me,’’ he says.
“For the younger guys, wear your mask all the time,’’ Matthews warned. “Old-school guys like me didn’t always keep our masks on. Guys, we aren’t made out of plastic.”
The video also features Billy Foley, a 64-year-old retired member of the force who has brain cancer and stage four lung cancer. A 38-year veteran of the department, Foley says in the video he and his colleagues never talked about cancer in the firehouse and that maybe he did not wear his air mask when he should have.
In an interview, Foley said he “was not one of those people who went to a hospital — or a doctor.” But in October 2009, while battling a fire on Purchase Street, he was taken to the hospital when the hatchback of his chief’s car struck him on the head. His vision instantly became blurry.
Less than a week later, he said doctors operated on his head and removed a tumor the size of a tennis ball. The cancer had originated in his lungs, he said in an interview.
His life is now laced with regular cancer treatments and visits with specialists.
At the screening Thursday, Foley sat with his wife and five children. An image of him came on a large screen. His children leaned into each other as he spoke. His wife, Maryann, wiped tears from her eyes.
“It affects our family tremendously,’’ she later said. “It’s life-changing.”
Meghan E. Irons can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons
The International Association of Fire Fighters has released this new video, please take a few moments to watch... then share with your friends. It explains how our Defined Benefit Pensions are Deferred Wages:“Every payday firefighters put part of their paycheck into their pension system and accept lower pay for receiving a pension when they retire…”