BOSTON — One of Boston’s busiest firehouses is on Boylston Street, the home of Engine 33 and Ladder 15.
Boston became the nation’s first paid fire department in the country in 1678. But no one ever expected the fire service to face what it’s facing today: the grave risk of cancer.
It’s touching all walks of life in the Boston Fire Department, from young to old and seasoned firefighters, it’s killing them at an alarming rate. The Boston Fire Commissioner says it has reached an epidemic level.
He says more than 190 Boston firefighters have died from occupational cancer since 1990 — a number that he says is only growing.
Why Cancer is Striking Firefighters in Greater Numbers
We’ve spent the last four months focusing on this issue. We’ll take you beyond the startling numbers and show you why it’s happening, and why it’s happening so often to the men and women who keep us safe.
Every day, all over Boston, the call for help is often met by the men and women of the Boston Fire Department. That call goes out more than 200 times across the Hub. It’s often the unknown they’re headed to, where the outcome can be catastrophic.
The last time the Boston Fire Department lost one of their own in the line of duty was March 26, 2014.
It was 2:42 p.m. when firefighters responded to a four story brownstone in Back Bay. The fire had consumed the building, fueled by strong winds. Lieutenant Edward Walsh and firefighter Michael Kennedy were two of the first firefighters to arrive that day at what eventually turned into a nine alarm fire.
Walsh, 43, and Kennedy, 33, were killed fighting the fire from the bottom of the building. It was a tragedy that rocked the Boston community and their stories were heard by many.
But in that same year, four Boston firefighters died from occupational cancer attributed to their job as firefighters. No one has heard their stories until now.
“It’s an epidemic. It has taken a devastating toll on the department. We have a significant number of members who are suffering through some significant stages of cancer,” Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn explained.
Commissioner Finn is a true fireman at heart. He joined in 1984 and has climbed the ranks ever since. But along the way, he’s seen coworkers and friends fall in a way that’s nothing short of heartbreaking.
On a wall at the Boston Fire headquarters, there is a wall where time stands still. It is adorned with pictures of firefighters who lost their lives to occupational cancer.
“I can honestly say, I know every single person on that wall,” Finn said.
He estimates someone in the Boston Fire Department is diagnosed with cancer every three weeks. In fact, the day before Boston 25 News sat down with him for an interview, a firefighter had just come to his office with a new diagnosis.
“A member came up to see me and said he was diagnosed the day before with advanced prostate cancer,” said Finn.
Last May was especially harsh.
“We had eight diagnoses in the month of May and that was probably the biggest impact for numbers that I have seen since I’ve been here,” said Finn.
But Commissioner Finn told us he realized there was a problem years before that.
“Back in 2008, I lost a good friend, John Kenney — he was a captain at Engine 24 — to a brain tumor. He was a young man in his mid-40s,” Finn explained. “He went to a couple of significant fires where we saw a couple of trends where people were at certain houses, at certain events and started developing these cancers after a number of years. So John was someone who brought everything to the forefront for a lot of us.”
One of those fires was in South Boston in October of 2002. A major fire erupted and roared through a power plant. Oil and smoke poured down on the firefighters. They were coated. And those hazards couldn’t be washed away. More than a decade later, the impact is devastating.
Of the 200 firefighters who answered the call that day, 50 have cancer, cardiac disease or lung disease. Sixteen of them have died from cancer; slow and agonizing deaths Commissioner Finn links to that day.
“So 15 years later and we’re starting to see the significant impact that one fire had on the department,” Finn said. “It’s crazy, but that’s one fire.”
Finn says it’s even bigger than that one fire.
Modern building materials and furnishings in homes and businesses are playing a huge role. Many in the fire service believe that plastics and flame retardant materials are only raising the risk for firefighters who are headed to the unknown.
Firefighters face what is considered “occupational cancer” because of a few factors.
First, the smoke and fumes are breathed in at the scene of a fire. For a few reasons, firefighters have tended to take off their masks, increasing the amount of carcinogens — cancer causing agents — inhaled with the smoke and fumes.
Second, the fumes and burned material wind up all over the protective gear firefighters wear. If it isn’t washed properly before it is worn again, then it will increase the risk of firefighters breathing in carcinogens.
The Underwriters Laboratories in Chicago gave Boston 25 News a video demonstrating how these risks have increased for firefighters now compared to 30 or 40 years ago.
The video shows two rooms, one includes items made with real wood and other natural materials. The other room shows a modern room with a curtain, couch and even a coffee table all made with synthetic fibers.
Both rooms were set on fire.
The more modern room on the right was quickly devoured by the flames. In just three minutes, the fire was shooting through the roof.
The older room withstood the heat, fire and smoke much longer. At 15 minutes, it was still together. It took 30 minutes for the room to burn.
Commissioner Finn says he is concerned about the building materials of today versus yesterday.
But he believes changing it is almost impossible.
“Realistically, I don’t think there’s much that can be done there,” he said. “What we need to be focused on, as a fire service is better protection, better practices and protocols on the fireground; on how we tactically protect members. We gotta start thinking about how we protect our firefighters from these kinds of exposures.”
On the outside, Commissioner Finn is working on how to fix it for the more than 1,500 men and women who work at the Boston Fire Department.
But on the inside, it strikes at the core of who he is and says it’s been the worst kind of pain.
“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you it takes a toll on you emotionally. When you see these members — you know them, you know their families — it becomes personal,” said Finn. “Every member is aware of this. People all know somebody who’s battling something and wondering if they’re gonna be next.”
Glenn Preston: a Boston Firefighter’s Personal Battle
For Glenn Preston, it seemed as if life couldn’t get any better.
He would tell you there’s nothing more he loves more than being a fireman.
He was living his passion fighting fires and saving people in the the city he loves. But life got even better when he met Eva.
They married and started a family. Everything was going right.
It was the summer of 2016. He was working on Engine Company 39 and a fire in Dorchester when life started to change.
“I was just not myself. I was running out of energy,” Preston explained.
He remembers the summer day when he and his crew were responding to fire after fire.
Most firefighters relish in that. But on this day, he couldn’t keep up.
“I was gasping for air. I couldn’t breathe. I was just dying before I got to the scene of the fire,” Preston said. I could hardly speak I was so winded. And then it was a real hot day and I blew it off. I said, ‘it’s the heat. It’s all this bunker gear.’”
It wasn’t the heat. It wasn’t the bunker gear he was wearing. Whatever it was, it was getting worse that day.
“It was a smoky fire. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. I was breathing wicked heavy and with the respiratory, you can hear it. Another firefighter came up to me and said, ‘are you alright?’ I said, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah.’”
He wasn’t alright. What he thought might be a broken rib turned into a trip to the hospital.
“I’m there for three or four hours,” Preston said. “CAT scans, X-rays and then I see six, seven, eight doctors all around me. This isn’t a good sign. Then they explain there’s a mass. There’s a mass in your chest…they were showing me all of these images and come to find out, there was a mass the size of a grapefruit or softball in between my right lung and my heart.”
The doctors wanted to remove it to see if it was cancerous. He remembers the day he got the phone call from his doctor with the results. Preston was on his way to Fenway Park, taking his 10-year-old son Jake with him.
With his son in the backseat, he took the phone call but tried desperately to keep his son from catching on.
“She told me the results. This was the first time I was told I have cancer and it’s bad,” Preston said. “So I was trying to talk with her and I said, ‘hey, good what’s up?’ She was like, ‘Glenn, you have cancer. This is the kind you have. It’s very severe. You need to get treatment immediately.’ So I said, ‘okay, what else is up?’ I wanted [my son] to think I was talking with one of my buddies. He was in the back listening to his music. And then she said, ‘Glenn, do you understand what I’m saying?”
Preston hung up and kept driving. Despite his doctors telling him to come to the hospital that night, he and Jake continued on to the Red Sox game.
“The whole time, I had a smile on my face and I was thinking this might be my last time that I get to bring my kid to a game ever. You know? Ever.”
After that weekend, Preston was in the hospital. And ever since, he’s been in and out of the hospital for chemotherapy and radiation.
On the day Preston sat down with us, the 41-year-old was just hours from going back to the hospital — this time to stay for at least a month. He needed to undergo high dose chemo and a bone marrow transplant to help fight off the two types of blood cancer he has — leukemia and lymphoma — causing tumors in his body.
“I feel good. I just feel tired. I’m really starting to get a little tired,” he said.
This was in early December. Not knowing what his future held, Preston had bought his kids’ stocking stuffers “just in case.”
He said the hardest part of the fight has been his kids watching every bit of it.
“It’s difficult to explain to your little 5-year-old that you’re not gonna be home for a month or your 7-year-old that you’re missing her birthday again,” he said. “They’re all having a hard time. They still have smiles on their face, but when your 5-year-old comes up to you and says, ‘dad, I don’t want you to have cancer anymore, when’s your cancer gonna be done?’ I wonder what goes through their minds when they’re thinking this. And she cries because she doesn’t want me gone for 30 days.”
He’s always told his doctors he didn’t want to be told how serious the cancer was.
“You know, I said straight up, ‘I don’t want to know how long I have to live. That’s up to me and God. And I don’t really care what stage it is, so don’t talk about that.”
His wife Eva has been by his side for the good, the bad and the painful.
They met in 2002 in a chance encounter at a coffee shop in Boston.
“He had said, I really like you and I’d like to take you for dinner,’” Eva explained. “A little more than a year later, the two married and went on to have four kids.”
Years later, they’re living a life no one could prepare for.
“It’s a lot. But I just deal with it,” Eva said. “I just worry. I think a little bit more because if I’ve been through this much already, I just think of my kids now, like I worry for my kids constantly.”
With four kids all under the age of 10, that’s a challenge.
But one where their father is battling serious cancer, it’s almost unimaginable unless it’s your family.
Jake, the Prestons 10-year-old son, said one of his favorite things to do with his dad is go to Red Sox games. It’s a chance for both to focus on each other and not on his dad’s health, which Jake admits is pretty hard.
“I don’t really like it, because it’s just hard to see him like that — so sad. He can’t move around and do certain things,” Jake said.
Sage, 8, understands her father’s battle, but focuses more on what she likes to do with him — dancing.
We visited with Glenn again after he returned to the hospital for his high dose chemo. Because he was so susceptible to infection, we had to wear masks and gloves.
“I feel a little bit tired, but I want to get out of here,” he said. “But I’m good.”
There has been pain, but doctors say he’s responded extremely well to the bone marrow transplant and chemo. Only time will tell how well. Glenn has been at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute for weeks.
His motivation to leave is uncomfortably honest.
“All I want to do is live, beat this, be able to walk my daughters down the aisle. Not be in a box. I want to get back to work, be a fireman again. I want to get back with my crew, my guys. I want to go to my kids’ recitals, school conferences. But I’m going to be in quarantine for months and months and months,” he said.
Not Alone in their Fight: Community Support
Katie Boshko is an instructor at the Crossfit on Route 1 in Lynn. Beyond the weights, the sweat and the loud music, something much deeper is happening at the gym. Glenn Preston’s wife, Eva, has been coming to Boshko’s classes.
“She always comes in here and gives 110 percent,” Boshko told us.
So when she heard what was happening with Glenn’s cancer battler, a few local gyms raised money. But there was still the urge to do more.
“I kind of just threw out there on Facebook that for every dollar donated, I would do a burpee in my weight vest,” Boshko explained.
She thought it would be a couple hundred, but it turned into so much more.
“It was just over $5,200,” Boshko said flatly.
That means 5,200 push-up/jumping jack combos wearing a heavy Kevlar vest. She spent weeks doing them and we were there the day she finished the final 100.
“I would do more if I had to,” she said, breathing heavily.
For a moment, Boshko celebrated with Glenn’s wife Eva. But then, Eva revealed a setback. Glenn’s abdomen had ruptured that day, sending him to emergency surgery. He would be okay, and the next day, he came home.
Through it all, Boshko and the others are doing everything they can to help the preston family. Whether that’s with donations or just providing a place full of optimism.
“To realize that we’re here to be their crutches and their cast and eventually, maybe they don’t need the crutches,” she said. “Maybe they just need the walking boot. We’ll be here when they need us.”
At home now, the fight for Glenn and Eva is up and down every day. Some days Glenn is able to go outside, maybe even go to a restaurant. Then there are days where Glenn stays in bed all day because he’s still so tired from all of the chemo.
But together, they’re fighting it.
“I have to stand by Glenn,” Eva said. “We made a commitment to each other when we got married and if I was going through that, I would want him to do the same for me.”
“My goal is to get better,” Glenn told us. “And be the proper father and husband, like I want to be. I just want to be a fireman again. I just want to be a freakin’ fire guy.”
Family of Watertown Chief Vows to Fight for Change
The years feel almost like days for Sandra Orangio.
“It feels like yesterday. It just doesn’t seem real. So long ago, but it also seems like yesterday,” Sandra said.
Looking back and going through the years of memories, she and her three daughters can’t help but smile and laugh about their father and husband, Mario. At 21, he became a firefighter in Watertown. Eventually, he worked his way up to become the chief. Sandra remembers the night he got the call that he was picked to lead the department.
“He hung up the phone and we both just got very excited and started jumping up and down and screaming. It was just awesome. It was a great feeling,” she said.
Sandra says her husband loved being a fireman. And she loved it too. She says she wasn’t one to worry about him heading off everyday into the unknown.
“You just don’t think about their job. You just, you get up, you kiss them and see ’em later on and you go,” she said.
But in late 2016, something was off. Mario had stomach pain and was quick to get it checked.
“If he didn’t feel well, he went to the doctor. He wasn’t one of those who would put it off. He was really good about that,” Sandra said.
It was October 31 when Mario went to the doctor. He came home that night ready to take their grandchild trick or treating, but Mario had unsettling news.
“He said, ‘can I talk to you for a second?’ I said, ‘yeah.’ He said, ‘do you want the good news or the bad news?’ I said, ‘what’s up?’ He said they had found a mass. So he said, don’t say anything to the girls. Let’s just see what this is.
The mass was on his pancreas. They both knew the threat was real. Sandra believes it was Mario’s exposure to years of toxic fires and chemicals that led to his mass. The morning after Halloween, Mario went to the hospital and as Sandra puts it, “that’s when everything started.”
“We thought we had caught it early enough,” Sandra said. “We thought that he was going to be fine.”
He instantly started chemotherapy and nine months later, they got some good news: the tumor had gotten smaller.
“They had said they were gonna take five weeks off and then we’re going to scan you again,” she explained. “And we waited, they made us wait five weeks and we came back and, uh, the scans were bad. His liver — the spots came back in two folds. The spot in his pancreas was growing back.”
Mario got sick very quickly.
“He knew right from the beginning,” Sandra said. “When he first got diagnosed, we went down to the Cape and we were talking about it and he said, ‘Sandra, people don’t live from this.’ He said, ‘I probably have two years.’ I kept saying, ‘you don’t know that. Let’s just hope.’”
For Sandra, the cruel reality is how fast the cancer hit Mario.
“Watching him go from what he was, to the day he passed away was horrific,” she said. “To watch your loved one not eat, not drink, not communicate. It’s awful. Right to the end, he would tell us he loved us.”
It turned out Mario would only live for a year after being diagnosed. November 2017, another community shattered.
Just a few months after saying good bye, Sandra and her three daughters are eager to share their story — as haunting as it may be — but it’s their hope that other, younger firefighters will listen and that other fire departments will do everything they can to save their own.
“There just needs to be more awareness, more training, funding, health insurance, scans, whoever will listen to me, I’ll talk to,” Sandra said. “There’s a fight that needs to be fought and my girls and I want to fight it.”
Mario Orangio was the youngest chief in the history of the Watertown Fire Department.
His family says that should also serve as warning, that cancer among firefighters can hit at any age.
The Changing Culture of Fighting Fires
The hazards firefighters face every shift go far beyond the flames.
It’s their equipment, it’s the toxins they’re breathing. A big part of all this has to do with firefighters wearing their masks in a dangerous fire.
If you can imagine, there was a time when many firefighters did not wear their masks. They wanted that smoky look on their face, almost as a sign of bravery.
That culture has changed.
Boston 25 News recently sat down with a group of Boston firefighters for a frank discussion on what you don’t see and what you don’t hear.
A CONVERSATION ABOUT THE CULTURE
While working on these reports, many people have asked me why Boston seems to have more firefighters suffering from cancer than other agencies in other big cities.
The commissioner believes it took this city too long to respond. But now, many changes are happening in an effort to save lives.
From the outside, most firehouses in New England have that gritty, historic look. On the inside, and behind every fire, changes are being made largely due to the spike in cancer cases impacting firefighters. These are changes that could save lives.
In the last few years, The City of Boston has thrown millions of dollars into fixing this. After a serious fire, the firefighters’ gear used to end up hanging on the wall at the firehouse, despite being covered in toxic chemicals from the flames.
Firefighters would re-use the gear over and over. Researchers say that would constantly expose firefighters to the risk of ingesting dangerous fumes or chemicals, call after call. Now, firefighters in Boston have two sets of gear. If there’s a bad fire, one set is washed and a backup set of gear is used.
In Chelsea, Massachusetts, Engine 2 ranks in the top five busiest fire engines in the country per capita. They’ve made similar changes to help protect firefighters.
Chelsea Deputy Fire Chief John Quatieri showed Boston 25 News the new washers and then took us into a separate, enclosed area. It’s where they put their gear to dry.
“So you can see, this is where everything gets hung up: the pants, the coat, the gloves,” he explained. “We try to get as much contaminants off the gear as soon and as quickly as possible.”
Last year, the City of Boston spent $4.5 million on new air tanks for the firefighters. They provide firefighters much more oxygen to use so there isn’t the urge for firefighters to take them off. What used to be 30-minute capacity tanks has now been expanded to 45 minute tanks.
Then there are the fire houses themselves. Boston has some of the oldest fire stations in the country. In Charlestown one firehouse has been around since 1853 — the oldest in Boston and known for blending in among its neighbors around Bunker Hill.
It’s now under renovation and Boston Fire commissioner Joe Finn showed us the changes being made — all $3.8 million worth. Many of them are designed to keep firefighters away from any cancer causing chemicals.
But perhaps most important is what’s happening with the new recruits. Those just added in February gave their blood. Every year, the department will take their blood and analyze it for any possible red flags associated with cancer.
Boston is one of the first departments in the country to do this. Commissioner Finn says this should have happened sooner and the previous mayor, Thomas Menino, dropped the ball.
“There are probably a lot of reasons for this. The ongoing conflicts, the union conflicts and battles over contracts. I think that played a part in it. But you couldn’t ignore the facts,” Commissioner Finn explained. “The facts were what they were. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out an exorbitant amount of our members were dying from cancer during that past administration and people didn’t want to make the change.”
The previous fire commissioner, Roderick Fraser, disputed that, saying, “we did things that should’ve been done.” He also said Mayor Menino “had a deep sense of commitment to the public safety of everyone in the city.”
But Fraser wouldn’t say how involved the mayor was on this issue.
The Boston Fire Department has now produced three videos — all very intense — to help educate firefighters on the real life dangers and hear the stories of those who’ve battled cancer.
It has even landed Commissioner Finn in front of audiences across the country, where he’s told Boston’s story and urged other fire departments to follow his lead.
“There’s no silver bullet on this issue,” Finn said. “In Boston, the biggest challenge we face right now is change. We’re changing in the right direction, but it’s the sense of invincibility.”
While he is eager to help the hundreds of firefighters that have been diagnosed, it’s also his mission to focus on the future now before it’s too late for hundreds more.
“Hopefully this thing plateaus and starts declining. That’s the goal. I think the changes that we’re making will impact the younger generation. I think the younger guys, even those with less than 10 years on the job, we can make a difference in their lives.”
Boston’s Response: Mayor Martin J. Walsh
Commissioner Finn largely credits current Boston Mayor Marty Walsh for approving the changes here at the Boston Fire Department.
Mayor Walsh sat down with Boston 25 News to talk about the difference the changes are making and whether it’s enough.
A CONVERSATION WITH MARTY WALSH
The Epidemic Beyond Boston
While cancer is hitting the Boston Fire Department hard, the issue is impacting agencies all across the state and across the country.
The Boston Fire is responding, but in other cases, the firefighter with cancer is on his own. But now, there’s an effort to change that.
Harold Schaitberger is the president of the International Association of Fire Firefighters.
He told Boston 25 News the cancer issue impacts too many firefighters across this country and right now it’s their number one priority.
“We’re looking at the science, we’re looking at the research, we’re talking about changing the culture for firefighters in order to try to keep them healthy, keep them alive longer and to let them enjoy their retirements,” Schaitberger said.
The national union believes in 2016, cancer caused 70 percent of the line of duty deaths for career firefighters.
That’s a number that has risen over the years. Rich Mackinnon leads the professional firefighters of Massachusetts and says it’s a problem statewide. While many fire departments in and around Boston have a second set of gear, or washers to clean uniforms after a dangerous fire, only about half the 220 fire agencies across the state have that.
His focus right now is working with lawmakers to make changes because laws don’t offer assistance to firefighters with cancer. If a firefighter is diagnosed with cancer under current laws, they have to use their sick time and rely on insurance.
“It’s a real burden on families,” Mackinnon explained. “We’ve had cases where members have used an expanded their sick time and used up their sick time. We had one case in Plymouth where the member exhausted his sick time. He had 7.5 years on the job, had occupational cancer, was fighting that cancer. He ran out of sick time. His pay was cut and his health insurance was canceled.”
That firefighter died.
Mackinnon is pushing two bills through the Massachusetts state legislature. If approved, firefighters diagnosed with cancer would go on injury leave. They wouldn’t have to use sick time and the city’s insurance would cover it, although it’s not clear how much it would cost.
“This legislation would have a huge impact on firefighters, but more importantly, their families,” Mackinnon said. “When a firefighter is going through cancer, typically they’re the breadwinner. The family doesn’t need to worry when the next paycheck is coming in or is their health insurance going to be canceled?”
A haunting reality for many families just struggling to survive in more ways than one.