Improving the Health & Safety of all Emergency Responders

My Cancer Story
Captain Tony Bailey

Cancer as of late, has become a household word in the fire service.  We are currently seeing a drastic increase of firefighters who are being diagnosed with some form of cancer.  These diagnoses do not discriminate against age, sex, or race of these individuals.  Being one of these firefighters who was diagnosed with cancer, the risks really hit home to me, whereas before, I really didn’t think about the health risks associated with the job.

In December 2013, I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer at the age of 44.  I was in relatively great health and physical condition and didn’t have a clue that I was sick.  I started having irritable bowel habits and found myself having six to seven bowel movements per day over the course of several weeks.  I knew this was not normal and I immediately made an appointment with my doctor.

My doctor performed a full blood work-up on me with a physical examination. The lab results determined a low blood count along with the exam showing traces of blood in my stool.  I was immediately scheduled for a colonoscopy the following week, which resulted in the finding of a tumorous growth in my colon.  Within two weeks, I began an eight-week regimen of chemotherapy 24 hours a day via a waist pump along with eight weeks of extensive radiation treatment to shrink the tumor.  Once to an operable size, I was scheduled for surgery to remove the tumor a few months later.  The surgery was successful, and I began recovery along with a temporary ostomy bag which I had to wear for nine months.

This was a huge lifestyle change to adjust to and extremely hard emotionally for me.  I eventually adjusted well to this and the following year I had another surgery to do a reversal of the ostomy and this returned me to a normal way of life.   This was a huge relief for me, not having to wear the ostomy bag for the rest of my life.  After the last surgery I had to take a last round of chemotherapy for eight weeks, once weekly to hopefully prevent any reoccurrence of cancer.

December 2018 was the five-year mark of my diagnosis, and I am extremely blessed to be doing well and working every day. I have put in a lot of thought about where my cancer may have come from and how did I get this disease?  I will never know for sure, but I do know the many hazards I have been exposed to over my twenty-six-year fire service career.  Here are a three of those risks I want to discuss in this article that I feel are most important and solutions that we have implemented in our department to combat the risks associated with firefighter cancers.

  1. Diesel Exhaust in the Fire Station – Every fire station does not have an exhaust removal system and these fumes contain benzene which is a known cancer-causing agent.

Solution: Install an exhaust removal system inside your fire station to alleviate the problem. Grants are also available to assist with the cost of these systems.

  1. Soiled and Dirty Personal Protective Equipment – Wearing soiled and dirty turnout gear increases the risks associated with cancer due to the skin contact and carcinogens in the smoke that the gear was exposed to from a fire.

Solution:  After a fire, use sanitary wipes to wipe down your neck and face until you can get back to the fire station to take a shower.  If possible, have a second set of gear available to wear while your primary gear is being washed.  Install a turnout gear extractor in your fire station to properly decontaminate and clean your turnout gear.  Keep all turnout gear outside of living areas of the fire station to prevent bringing contaminates inside the station. Grants are also available to assist with the costs of the turnout gear extractor.

  1. Wear your SCBA – Anytime there are risks of exposure to smoke and contaminants, always wear your SCBA to protect you. This is especially important during the overhaul stages of a fire where these contaminants are at their peak levels and we are subject to get a false sense of security to remove our SCBA and risk exposure to these high levels of carcinogens associated with these biproducts of combustion.

Solution: Always utilize your SCBA until proper air monitoring determines otherwise.



Tony Bailey is a twenty-six -year veteran of the fire service and currently is a volunteer Fire Captain with the Nashville Fire Department in Nashville, North Carolina. He holds an Associate Degree in Emergency Preparedness Technology from Nash Community College, is a graduate of the Fire and Rescue Management Institute at UNC Charlotte and holds an Associate Emergency Manager Credential with the NC Department of Emergency Management.  He is also a past State Lead Advocate for the Everyone Goes Home Program in North Carolina. Tony is currently employed with the NC Department of Insurance, Office of State Fire Marshal as a Fire Department Ratings and Governmental Specialist.