Two days before Lynn Elliott was hospitalized with terminal cancer in 2005, he was out with the Oxford Fire Department helping firefighters working a structure fire, his wife said.
Elliott had already endured 16 months of chemotherapy and radiation for a cancer that began in his lungs, spread to his lymph nodes, created lesions on his brain and ended in his liver. He died the following Saturday, the day before Father’s Day, after a short stay in the hospital, his widow, Mary Elliott, remembered on Monday. He was 52 years old.
“The doctor said the carcinogens he faced during his career contributed to the accelerations of the cancer,” Mary Elliott said. “If everyone had known then what we know now, he might still be here. He died too young. I was not ready to lose him.”
Two bills currently before the Legislature touch on firefighters and their elevated risk of cancer. One bill could help cut down on firefighters’ exposure to carcinogens while another would help ease the financial burden for retired firefighters diagnosed with cancer.
“I’m 1,000 percent behind any legislation that could keep this from happening to anyone else’s family,” Elliott said.
In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention worked with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health on a study of 30,000 firefighters hired after 1950. The researchers found higher rates of some cancers among those firefighters than the general public.
Oxford fire Chief Gary Sparks, who spent much of the formative years of his career with Elliott, said the culture of the fire service was different when they started.
“It was all about what was macho,” he said. “I remember getting a chest cold and saying I needed a good smoky house fire to clear me up. You were considered a wuss if you used an airpack.”
State Rep. Tommy Hanes sponsored both bills, which had their first reading in January. Efforts to reach Hanes were unsuccessful.
Under House Bill 7, any new fire station for paid firefighters would be required to install an exhaust system to capture air with diesel exhaust fumes and replace it with fresh air. Firefighters often spend long periods in their stations with their trucks’ diesel engines idling.
Under the bill, departments with 10 or fewer existing fire stations would be required to install the systems within five years, and departments with more than 10 stations would have seven years.
Sparks said all his stations have some form of the exhaust system, though the system isn’t working in one station.
“That’s something we need to get fixed,” he said.
The exhaust systems are one way fire officials are working to keep their staff healthy, but Sparks said there have been many changes since he started in the service.
Firefighters at Oxford have to change their hoods, pieces of cloth that go around the head and neck under firefighters’ helmets and jackets, after every fire call.
“When I first started, the dirtier your turnouts were, the tougher you were,” Sparks said. “Now we have to worry about washing them too much and wearing them out.”
Despite the changes, cancer still happens, Sparks said. On Monday, sitting in Station 6, which was named after Lynn Elliott, Sparks sifted through old photos pointing out firefighters in group pictures who’d recently been diagnosed with cancer or died from it.
“Chief Dewey Webb, Chief Kenneth Henson, then Lynn,” he said. “We’ve seen our share of cancer at the department.”
For those diagnosed during their careers, the state currently offers insurance coverage, disability and workers compensation for cancer, which is considered an occupational disease. Under House Bill 41, firefighters diagnosed within 10 years of retirement would receive supplemental insurance coverage or reimbursement for medical treatment not covered by their own insurance.
Elliott was forced into retirement because of his cancer, Sparks said.
“He was the first to die of cancer at our department who received line-of-duty death benefits,” he said.
Mary Elliott said she was well taken care of after her husband died, but said she can imagine how hard it could be for other families who may not have the same financial and emotional support.
For Sparks, who spent much of his career alongside Elliott, exposed to the same environments, in both the Anniston and Oxford fire departments, the fear of cancer is always there.
“I know when I’m older I’m going to have lung problems,” Sparks said. “It’s the price we pay from years of not knowing the risks.”