Last month, as former Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief and firefighters looked on, City Council members expressed gratitude for a $96,000 donation to purchase six washing machines that remove carcinogens — substances capable of causing cancer — from fire department gear.
Mayor Mattie Parker called it a “very, very exciting day” for the city, which takes its responsibility to address cancer in the first responder community seriously, she said.
“City management and Chief Jim Davis are working together right now on real solutions, not just for this department, but across the country,” Parker said. “We want to be really leading in Fort Worth on what this looks like into the future.”
Fast facts: Firefighters and cancer
Between 2002 and 2019, cancer caused 66 percent of career firefighter line-of-duty deaths, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety found that firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and 14 percent higher chance of dying from cancer than the U.S. population.
But outside of the celebration in City Hall, leaders of the Fort Worth Fire Service Resource Network – the nonprofit organization that gave the donation — say they have been sidelined from conversations about how Davis and the department should move forward with preventing cancer among firefighters.
Cameron Brown, a retired Fort Worth firefighter and director of the network, said Davis is standing in the way of more collaboration on cancer prevention. The group, born out of a committee formed by then-Chief Rudy Jackson in 2015, is run by current and retired firefighters, some of whom survived cancer or lost coworkers and friends to the disease.
They have pushed for the department to provide two sets of bunker gear — the personal protective equipment used during structural fires — so that first responders can use one set while their dirty set is cleaned.
“It just seems like we kept asking: ‘Why can’t we have two sets of bunker gear? Why can’t we have extractors at each fire station?’” Brown said. “‘Well, there’s not enough money.’ That was always kind of the excuse.”
Brown and Ret. Captain Robert Webb, another leader within the nonprofit, said donors like Mike and Rosie Moncrief stepped in to purchase more extractors, the commercial washing machines used by departments to clean gear exposed to dangerous pollutants. The couple is honored to help first responders but does not intend to interfere with questions of city leadership, Mike Moncrief said in a statement.
“That is simply not our place,” Moncrief, who served as mayor between 2003 and 2011, said.
Firefighters concerned about high rates of cancer in the department were encouraged when City Council members allocated $1.275 million toward prevention in 2019, Brown said. But the nonprofit has been critical of Davis’ decision to spend nearly $750,000 on “nonstructural gear,” or lightweight firefighting gear, rather than buying extractors as originally planned.
Davis, who took over as chief in 2018, argues the department is pursuing a different strategy that makes more financial sense for the city. The cost of buying and installing extractors, especially at stations that needed electrical updates, was too high at the time to justify, he said. The city currently has three extractors, one of which was installed with the 2019 funding.
Firefighters can wear the cheaper lightweight gear while responding to automobile accidents and other incidents rather than rewearing their bunker gear that has been exposed to pollutants, Davis said. The department spent about $300,000 on 116 additional sets of bunker, or structural, firefighting gear, according to a council report.
“For us, with just shy of 1,000 people, having two sets of gear is two sets that have to be cleaned and inspected twice a year,” he said. “That’s 4,000 touches, and it creates logistical issues that I can’t afford. I’m trying to make sure that I provide a solution to reduce the risk of cross-contamination from carcinogens to our people and stay fiscally responsible doing it.”
But Webb, a cancer survivor who spent more than 30 years with the Fort Worth Fire Department, said current members of the force are not using the nonstructural gear now available to them.
“I’ve talked to a lot of firefighters about that, and especially the officers, they can’t carry that gear (with them). There’s not enough room to carry the gear they have, much less another set of gear,” Webb said. “Most of that gear, from what I’ve understood, is still in the package and in the lockers. It’s unused.”
Firefighter group asked to meet elsewhere
The dispute has recently turned personal. As the network sought council approval of its donation, Davis told the group’s leaders they could no longer meet in the Bob Bolen Public Safety Complex, where they hosted gatherings before and after gaining nonprofit status in 2019.
The organization has moved its activities, including a cancer prevention symposium later this year, to Tarrant County College’s northwest campus, Brown said. The college offers fire academy classes at its public safety training center.
“(Davis) became very retaliatory,” she said. “It feels like Chief Davis has put these hurdles in our way, and we’ll go over them, we’ll go around them, we’ll go under them because we are so dedicated to this mission.”
The network has transitioned from being advocates for firefighters and their families to acting as lobbyists, Davis said. In a letter to City Manager David Cooke’s office, leaders of the network said their donation was necessary because Davis and the department had failed to properly address firefighter cancer, Davis told the Report.
He wasn’t trying to punish the group by moving them out of the government complex, but Davis said he needed to create more of a distinction between the resource network and the department.
“My boss started asking me why we were providing them space and administrative support,” he said. “As frustrated as they are with me, I’m incredibly frustrated with them because their work is important, but the approach that they took out of frustration muddied the water in ways that it didn’t need to be muddied.”
Threat posed by culture of ‘dirty gear’
Firefighters are frequently exposed to 14 different carcinogens in fire smoke, including arsenic, benzene, asbestos, diesel engine exhaust, soot and other pollutants, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
A 2016 study by the Centers for Disease Control found a greater number of cancer diagnoses and cancer-related deaths among firefighters than the general public. Most of the diagnoses were digestive, oral, respiratory and urinary cancers, according to the study.
Those numbers had a real-life impact on Webb. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that begins in the body’s lymphatic system, in 2014. Webb went into remission after extensive chemotherapy, but the cancer returned in 2020, leading to his retirement.
“Until it happened to me, I wasn’t worried about getting sick, and I was one of those guys that probably had dirty gear,” Webb said. “But having gone through it myself, if I can prevent someone else going through that and their family from going through that, that’s why I do what I do.”
Since his diagnosis, Webb has worked with firefighters in and outside of Fort Worth as they pursue worker’s compensation to cover their medical costs. He has also become an advocate for best practices that can reduce the likelihood of developing cancer.
Those include wearing full protective equipment, changing clothes and showering after an exposure incident, washing gear or at least isolating it as soon as possible, and getting an annual physical to increase the chances of detecting cancer early, according to the Lavender Ribbon Report, a set of recommendations produced by the National Volunteer Fire Council.
Until 2015, when then-chief Jackson established a committee of firefighters to discuss cancer prevention, the department’s culture re-enforced a custom of re-wearing dirty gear, inadvertently exposing first responders to carcinogens over and over again, Webb said. Davis echoed that sentiment in an interview with the Report.
“Historically in the fire service, the dirtier your gear, the better your gear,” Davis said. “It says that I’m experienced, that I’ve done the job. There’s been a tradition of that, and so changing the culture is also part of the educational part of reducing the risk of cancer.”
Texas law now requires departments to wash firefighting gear at least twice per year. Fort Worth has improved its “cancer reduction strategy” to include installing more extractors, encouraging annual physicals and developing a formal gear cleaning program, Davis said. A retrofitted truck now picks up dirty gear from fire scenes, provides loaned gear to firefighters and drops off cleaned gear the next day.
“Anybody in the Fort Worth Fire Department who is in dirty gear, that’s not because we are not providing a solution,” he said. “I believe that our approach is much better than it was when I got here at the end of ‘18.”
Divide over where to spend city’s prevention funds
No scientific consensus exists to prove the effectiveness of purchasing extractors versus buying lightweight gear to prevent cancer among firefighters. Casey Grant, a former director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation and a fire protection engineer, said by email that there are a number of ways for departments to lower cancer risk.
“Questions on the allotment of limited resources are a challenge, including the choice between non-structural gear or extractors at each station,” Grant wrote. “There are other activities, equipment and approaches that can have a significant impact on reducing the risk of occupational cancer, such as annual physicals and screening, effective field decontamination, and protocols to control contamination in apparatus and stations.”
Under Jackson, who retired in 2018, the cancer focus group developed a procedure for decontaminating firefighting gear, conducted cancer prevention training and surveyed the force about changes they would like to see within the department, said Webb, who served on the focus group. The majority of the force wanted more extractors and a second set of structural gear, Webb said.
“Nowhere on that list was there lightweight firefighting gear,” he said. “We would have spent less money just putting extractors in every station than doing all these things that nobody really wants, nobody’s asked for. Nobody at the station level is being asked those questions: ‘What’s important to you? What would you like to have?’”
After Davis’ arrival, the committee was sidelined as the new chief sought to establish his own priorities within the department, Webb said. Following the advice of Moncrief, the group decided to seek nonprofit status so they could accept donations to help families affected by cancer and hold symposiums on cancer prevention, he added.
Davis admits his relationship with the network has gone “a little sideways.” He’s appreciative of the donations they’ve brought forward, which have more of an impact now than in 2019, when the cost of extractors was much higher, he said. The price of a machine is now about $12,000 instead of $30,000, Davis added.
“I am still committed to extractors. We’ll be putting them in new fire stations moving forward,” Davis said. “I believe they had good intent and the manner in which they went about it caused unnecessary commotion that had to be addressed before anybody in the city was comfortable with accepting the donation.”
Using the donated funds, extractors will be put into Stations 8, 12, 14, 23, 24 and 35, Webb said. The network will continue accepting donations for future extractors, Brown added.
As for their relationship with the chief, Webb was encouraged when Davis gave the go-ahead to sell St. Patrick’s Day shirts to firefighters as a fundraiser for the nonprofit. But the group has begun to expand outside of Fort Worth, helping other departments in the Metroplex that have been more receptive to their educational programs, Webb said.
“It’s sad to say that Fort Worth was our least friendly collaborator,” he said. “We had that symposium where you’re bringing in outside departments to tell them the safest ways and best practices of preventing cancer, and you knew in your heart that your department wasn’t doing any of it. They’re not practicing what they preach.”
Reporter Emily Wolf contributed reporting to this article.
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.