By Jared Weber
May was once Amy McLamb’s favorite month of the year.
There’s her birthday and she loves spring, too, especially when the weather warms up. With two kids, she also used to look forward to Mother’s Day. But that all changed on May 23, 2013, when McLamb lost her husband, Morgan, to brain cancer.
“I find that I spend most of May really dreading today,” McLamb, 40, said on May 23 of this year. “But usually, once I get past today, I’m okay.”
Morgan McLamb was a firefighter by trade. He had worked several other jobs in the past — he met Amy as her manager at Starbucks — but he discovered his life’s passion when he began volunteering for the Raleigh Fire Department in 1998.
In 2004, he graduated the fire academy and joined the force.
“Morgan was a people person and a people helper,” Amy McLamb said. “[Firefighting] was what he wanted to do. He was so empathetic to everybody.”
According to recent studies, though, his beloved profession was likely also his killer.
Cancer has been decimating firefighters across the country.
Links to certain cancers
A 2013 study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, sampling nearly 30,000 firefighters from Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco, reported that firefighters are about 14 percent more likely to die of cancer than the average American.
Respiratory, digestive tract and urinary cancers were found to be particularly rampant within the fire service. The study also reported that firefighters are diagnosed with mesothelioma – a cancer associated with asbestos – at double the rate of the rest of the country’s population.
Recent data suggest that it’s exposure to carcinogenic soot and ash, which coats firefighters’ skin and turnout gear after an incident, that causes them to become ill.
Safety over bravado
Until recently, Raleigh firefighters not only didn’t follow safety measures, they shunned them altogether.
“There was a period of time when firefighters viewed dirty uniforms and helmets as badges of honor,” said Keith Wilder, a battalion chief and the former president of Raleigh Professional Firefighters Association.
Wilder, 51, has fought fires in Raleigh for nearly 32 years. Back when he joined, he said he rarely washed his uniform, in order to allow the grime to coat his equipment.[sponsor]
“It gave off a salty look,” Wilder said of the soot-covered gear. “One of the greatest things you could have done, to be accepted by your peers, was to have that look and have the reputation of being an aggressive firefighter.”
As scientific evidence emerged, though, so did diagnoses. Five current or former Raleigh firefighters have been diagnosed with cancer. The fifth, Brent Upton, learned that he had esophageal cancer in April.
The department has begun to adapt as a result — culturally and technologically.
Wilder said the department’s attitude has shifted to where, if someone lacks a piece of protective equipment, it becomes a team effort to find them a spare.
In terms of technology, every Raleigh firefighter now owns two sets of turnout gear, and they’re required to have one of them clean at all times. To achieve this, all 28 Raleigh fire stations are now equipped with extractors, a heavy-duty washing machine designed to disinfect the gear.
Older stations have been adapted, and newer stations are being specifically designed, to limit cross-contamination once firefighters return from incidents.
Gregory Bridges, another battalion chief, serves as the department’s safety officer, in which he plans and runs internal safety initiatives.
Bridges said that Raleigh’s large department is able to purchase equipment and obtain knowledge that many smaller departments can’t access.
“We have the budget for it, and I’m even able to go to conferences and learn,” Bridges said. “A lot of smaller departments just don’t have that option.”
Legislation stalls in Raleigh
A lone firefighters’ cancer bill currently floating around the state legislature hasn’t been touched in over a year.
House Bill 355, which would extend line-of-duty death benefits to six additional types of cancer, has been stalled in the House Appropriations Committee since April 2017. Only mesothelioma, testicular and esophageal cancer qualify for the benefit under current North Carolina law.
However, this death benefit has been doubled, from $50,000 to $100,000, in the legislature’s recently passed state budget.
Rep. Jason Saine (R-Lincoln), one of the bill’s primary sponsors and a former volunteer firefighter, anticipates it will be discussed in the next legislative session. He said it hasn’t moved because other legislators aren’t aware of the severity of the issue.
“It’s something that folks just don’t readily know about, but as they start to become aware of the dangers to firefighters, they’re certainly sympathetic,” Saine said.
Even if the bill were to pass, however, it wouldn’t offer any financial support to firefighters while they’re still alive.
“(HB355) is good, because it’s going to give money to our survivors, but it doesn’t do anything for the firefighters while we’re going through medical treatment,” said Josh Simpson, who leads educational outreach for the North Carolina Firefighter Cancer Alliance.
The ideal bill, Simpson said, would be presumptive legislation for firefighters’ cancer.
So far, 33 other states have passed such bills. These laws offer workers’ compensation, in addition to line-of-duty death benefits, for firefighters who develop some or all types of cancer while on the job.
“This is a workers’ compensation issue,” Simpson said. “If we can get a presumptive legislation bill moving, the workers’ comp will cover our medical treatments and medications.”
Doing the right thing
2018 is the first year that both of Amy McLamb’s children have lived longer without their father than with him.
Her daughter Avery, 9, was just 4 years old when Morgan passed. Her 7-year-old boy, Carson, was 2.
Their parents concluded pretty early on that it was the chemical exposure from fighting fires that made Morgan sick. But neither of them ever felt regret over how it happened.
“[Morgan] wasn’t one to live in the shoulda-coulda-woulda very much,” McLamb said.
McLamb struggled to deal with the financial burden she incurred from her husband’s medical treatment.
“If there’s any connection there, the government and the legislature don’t treat this empathetically and with compassion,” she said.
For families like the McLambs, Wilder said he and other North Carolina firefighters have spent multiple days at the legislature this year, so that the firefighters of the future can work with a sense of security.
“When you look in the faces of the widows … that strengthens my resolve that we’re doing the right thing,” Wilder said. “What we’re doing here is going to have an impact.”