Sounding the alarm: Fundraiser boosts awareness of cancer in fire service

Published 12:10 am Saturday, June 15, 2024

SALISBURY — Raising both funds and awareness along with supporting a member of the local firefighter family were all a part of the Pull the Alarm on Cancer event held earlier this month. 

A crowd gathered in the parking lot of New Sarum brewery for the fundraiser, which provided an opportunity for attendees to hear Salisbury Firefighter Captain Don Clark’s story about his cancer journey and to see the documentary titled, “Burned.” The film, produced by actor Mark Ruffalo, profiles Diane Cotter who suspected chemicals could be present in turnout gear after her husband, retired Worcester, MA, Local 1009 firefighter Paul Cotter, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in late 2014.

T-shirts, glasses and raffle tickets were sold, along with donations collected to view the documentary, with the proceeds going to the Salisbury Professional Firefighters cancer fund, which provides direct funding for Salisbury firefighters diagnosed with cancer.

Ethan Chirico, firefighter and vice president Salisbury Professional Firefighters Union Local 2370, served as the emcee for the event, which came about through the union.

Prior to his calling Clark and his wife Rebecca to come and share his story, Chirico welcomed everyone and thanked them for coming to the fundraiser and expressed the purpose of the evening as he said, “we’re here tonight to raise awareness about a critical issue facing firefighters, the rise in deaths and injuries especially from occupational cancer.”

Chirico told of the dangers that come with firefighting that go beyond the flames, heat and toxins that they face fighting fires, but it’s also their equipment designed to protect them.

This year alone, he said, 23 firefighters nationwide have been lost to cancer, and “our health is at risk and the Salisbury Professional Firefighters are sounding that alarm.”

It will take constant effort to improve the working conditions of firefighters and, Chirico said, that is not going to be achieved by waiting but it will take determination and unity to face obstacles.

“Working with the union mostly as our advocacy is very important,” he said. “It’s the most important thing for moving us forward,” adding that their work environment, safety and pay would not move along without their own advocacy. Therefore, “collectively we work together for a better collective outcome,” he said.

Good news was also shared as he said thanks to their hard work, Salisbury would be putting into practice the National Standards for annual physicals for firefighters.

As noted on the National Fire Protection Agency 1582 Chapter website, the “standard’s purpose is to reduce the risk of fire service occupational morbidity and mortality while improving the safety and efficiency of firefighters and addresses medical issues of both candidates and incumbents.  

Because of research and the advocacy of the Union firefighters, Chirico said they would also be receiving annual cancer screenings with an ultrasound, which are proven tools for early cancer detection. 

The goal of the local firefighters union, he said, is a simple one and that is collaboration. 

“We want to work with the city to ensure a healthy and dignified retirement for firefighters dedicating 30 years of service to their community,” he said.

And while the goal had been achieved yet, they would persist and improve on their current gains.

“Our success hinges on two things,” he said, and that is “the trust we have in each other and the trust we share in our community.”

He concluded by thanking each one there and for their support of the Salisbury Professional Firefighters and told them that the money that they raised during the event would start the cancer fund, a direct fund payment for anyone at the Salisbury Fire Department, union or not, who is diagnosed with cancer.”

This event and its focus hit close to home for the local firefighters as Captain Don Clark, who has been with the Salisbury Fire Department for 10 years, has been fighting cancer and shared his story. Clark came to Salisbury in 2014 after serving first in Long Island, New York and then going in 2009 to Lake Norman Fire Department.

He and his wife shared his emotional journey of his cancer, beginning with a family background of his parents having lung cancer.

Healthy himself, he had his physicals through the fire service and as the years went by he was told by the doctor to keep in eye on his PSA.

The PSA, Rebecca told the crowd “monitors the levels of a certain chemical in your system for the prostate.”

It is checked for all men, she said, as she encouraged all the young men there to keep a check on it. She said that when you reach a certain age, they really start checking it.

Don said his numbers started out good from 1.6 and 1.7 to 3.7 in 2022 and in 2023, it was 4.7, which he said is not good.

He kept this number to himself for a while, he said as he pointed to his wife and said, if she had known she would “make me do things I didn’t want to do.”

She found the report and within a week was in touch with a doctor and Don had an appointment within two weeks. 

The next step was a biopsy, and while this might sound easy, Rebecca said it wasn’t, not at all as he ended up septic and in the hospital. He recovered and they waited to hear from the doctor, a call which told them that of the 12 biopsies taken two came back as cancer, two as suspicious and the word surgery was given.

The Clarks wanted to investigate other options and talk to other doctors and got three opinions, ending up at Duke with an ex-military doctor that they connected with.

“We fell in love with him,” Rebecca said. “He was wonderful. He listened to us. The first two doctors were not listening to us.”

Because they were coming up on the year mark since the diagnosis, his advice was to have the surgery.

Don was still in denial about it all, Rebecca said, but the tests are saying he has cancer. Therefore they set up the surgery and it wass planned for Feb. 14, and it went well, she said.

“The surgery could not have gone better. He was very, very pleased with how it went. The recovery for that is not easy,” she said, but because he is so physically fit, he had a wonderful recovery. Being “physically fit was a game-changer for him.”

With emotion in his voice, Don shared how support is huge.

He and Rebecca both touched on prevention and need for extra gear so they could return from a fire and have that fresh gear to change into giving them the chance to wash the other set.

There have been times, she pointed out where he has gone to one fire, returned and had to go out to others, putting on that same gear multiple times.

“It was dirty, it was full of smoke. It was wet,” she said. “It was infected so to speak and you know that’s a big deal. They shouldn’t have to come back to that. There should be time for them to come back and clean up.”

There were many people on hand for the event, family members of the Clarks, firefighter family members and others from the community who came to support them all.

Four women who were in attendance, Regina Dancy, Dora Mbuwayesango, Andria Porter and Jill Smith heard about the event and came to show their support.

“We heard about the importance of how firefighters are afflicted with cancer so much because of the work that they do and so we just wanted to come out and show our support to the firefighters and let them know that we appreciate what they do for the community and let them know that they are not alone in this battle,” said Dancy on behalf of the group.

Don said seeing the big group come out to the event was awesome.

Chirico said it felt great having all the support for the event as he mentioned that there were firefighters from Greensboro, Charlotte and Kannapolis, plus some on-duty companies were coming.

Plus he said they were glad to “incorporate the community to this event more than anything, just kind of raise awareness that this issue is pervasive. We are fighting against the inevitable, cancer, that’s ridiculous, that’s unacceptable.”

While not a firefighter himself, but the brother of one, Fred Marsh said he knew many of the firefighters there plus understands the need for awareness. He said he “wanted to come out and support the cause and spend time, help raise a little money. It’s an important issue.”

Firefighter Spencer White said he came for multiple reasons, including showing support for the cause, trying to raise money and awareness of cancer in the fire service.

“Any way we can support that and our fellow member that had it, Captain Clark, to make this stuff go away and raise awareness so people will know how to get screened and take care of themselves,” he said.

Chris Haynes, who was a lieutenant at the Salisbury Fire Department and now serves as a volunteer in Faith, said he felt it was important to be there “because these guys are sacrificing their life every day for the public, and it’s not easy. It’s not easy doing it every day.”

He also mentioned the risks that go along with the job and the importance of education about them.

“I thought this was cool to see them educating the public on what they deal with, and communication is the only way we can fix problems,” he said.

Rebecca said prostate cancer isn’t talked about and therefore it’s important to share about it and spread awareness.

“I think it’s important to start raising awareness in the fire service and I think it’s important to start getting our admin and councilmen on board with some things that need to happen, make it safer for them.”

Not only is Don a fireman, but their two sons are also firemen, one in Kannapolis and the other in Charlotte.

Chris Clark said they had known about what the gear would do to them for a while as well as not cleaning themselves off too.

In the past 12 years, he said there has been a shift from it being taboo to clean your gear to now making sure your gear’s clean and researching ways to keep yourself clean.

He mentioned the PFAS chemicals, which was part of the documentary that evening, noting that the gear they wear to protect them is harming them.