Brain cancer forces Ky. firefighter into retirement

Messenger-Inquirer

OWENSBORO, Ky. — Life almost went in a different direction for David McCrady.

The son of a fire chief at the Thruston-Philpot Volunteer Fire Department, McCrady admired his dad's dedication to the department but did not plan to become a career firefighter.

"Actually, I was going to be a French teacher," McCrady said Friday on the last day of his 21-year career with the Owensboro Fire Department. But when he was offered a job as a firefighter with OFD in 1993, "I took it without a second thought," he said. By the time a school district offered McCrady a job as a French and history teacher, it was too late.

But McCrady's education background didn't go to waste. As a battalion chief and in charge of training, McCrady constantly emphasized the importance of safety on the job. Despite his other accomplishments — helping deliver a baby, rescuing a unconscious man from a burning home, winning an American Red Cross "Heroes" award and working with his fellow OFD firefighters to assist Louisiana residents after Hurricane Katrina — McCrady said he will be happiest knowing his work has made firefighters safer.

"The guys don't like it when I'm on-scene. I'm referred to as a ‘safety Nazi,' " McCrady said. "I tell them, ‘I don't care if you're mad … If I'm able to keep you safe and send you home to your family, I don't care, be mad.' I guess some of the proudest things I've been able to do is send these guys home from a dangerous situation — not just me, but with my prodding, my nagging, they would say."

On Friday, McCrady said farewell to the fire department. McCrady was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013, a condition possibly caused by the exposure to smoke and toxic fumes from responding to fires over the years. Leaving the department before he is ready is difficult, McCrady said.

"It's hard on me, because I have to give my job up," McCrady said. "But if it was on my terms, it would be easier. But I'm being forced out by a nasty disease. Some of the last classes we did were on the contents of smoke and what it can do. I look back on my career, when I'd gotten into places without all my protective gear … or had smoke blow back.

"The guys are really starting to see that," McCrady said of the toxic fumes in smoke. "I've helped them wake up to that, even with me being the ‘safety Nazi.' "

McCrady's early days with the fire department in October 1993 were a time of hazing by the more experienced crew members.

"I don't think we even had a fire run" on McCrady's first day on the job, he said. "It was just ‘new guy' stuff, cleaning up here, cleaning up there, and ‘I don't think that's good enough, do you? No, sir.' "

At one of McCrady's early fire runs, the driver drove away from the scene, leaving him behind. At his very first fire, "I believe we ended up saving a cat," he said.

A much more serious rescue took place about a year later. During a housefire on Center Street, residents of the home told firefighters that one family member was still inside. McCrady went inside.

"Sure enough, the guy was on the floor," he said. "The only way you could hear him was by not breathing." The sound of the man's faint breathing was drowned out by McCrady's respirator, he said. McCrady and an Owensboro police officer got the man out of the home. The man survived.

But not every house fire or accident in McCrady's career has had an equally happy ending. Smoke inhalation is the primary killer in most home fires.

"When you find kids that died in a pool or kids that died (in other incident), I've still got vivid images of ones that I've taken care of."

Part of the department's training includes how to recognize the signs of stress and where to turn to for help.

"I've always made sure people have the opportunity to have the discussion, because we've had some really sad cases," he said. While a firefighter focused on the immediate emergency can block out the emotions of finding a dead victim, "it will catch up with you if you're not careful," he said.

The Owensboro Fire Department has changed over McCrady's career. For example, the department makes multiple medical runs now, providing assistance to people suffering from heart attacks and other kinds of illnesses or injuries until paramedics from the ambulance service arrive. Almost every member of the fire department is an EMT, and even the few that aren't know CPR and how to use an automated external defibrillator.

There's always something new to learn, McCrady said.

"It eventually came to be that my teaching (background) fell right into place here," McCrady said. "Things change so rapidly that you never know all the information."

Another change is that agencies are no longer islands working alone. McCrady said the city fire department works and trains regularly with county and volunteer firefighters, police and sheriff's deputies and emergency management officials.

"We always talk about it being a family, a brotherhood, and it is," he said. "We've been lucky to expand that beyond the fire department. I feel as close to the police department as the guys here."

With his illness, McCrady's colleagues have been very supportive. "Everybody tells me, ‘If you need anything, let me know and we'll take care of it,' " he said. Those haven't been empty words; when McCrady had a roof leak during a heavy bout of rain, people showed up to patch the leak.

Battalion Chief Steve Leonard, who has worked with McCrady for all of McCrady's career, said McCrady is someone who was always there to help.

"He has been involved in every aspect of the fire department," Leonard said. "… You knew his heart was in it, and his best effort was going to be put forth. You could count on him.

"David always made sure he brought the concern of making sure you stayed safe" at a fire or incident, Leonard said. "… He was one of those guys who made sure you were prepared for any contingency." McCrady "was someone you could turn to for help, and he'd be there," Leonard said.

"How do you replace someone like that?" Leonard said.

Since announcing his intention to retire, McCrady has heard from firefighters thanking him for his work and expressing the hope that they can follow his example, he said. Similar sentiments have also come from McCrady's family.

"My son, he wrote a post on how proud he was of me … (and) he knows what he wants to do with his life. He wants to follow in my footsteps," McCrady said. "When you leave an impression on the most important people, that's what's important."

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