W.Va. fire dept. pushes to protect firefighters from cancer after chief’s death, one diagnosis
Now that the Moundsville Fire Department has been affected by cancer twice, firefighter Wendi Wentzell-Cuc said their push to evolve is greater than ever
By Sarah Calams
Sponsored by LION
On Nov. 9, 2017, Fire Chief Noel Clarke of the Moundsville, West Virginia, Fire Department died after a long battle with cancer. He was only 50 years old.
Clarke, who was chief for about 15 years, was well loved and respected in his small-town community. Unfortunately, his cancer was attributed to his work as a firefighter.
"He had been in the fire service a long time, and back then firefighters didn't take the precautions that we're starting to take nowadays," Moundsville Fire Department firefighter Wendi Wentzell-Cuc, who just celebrated her one-year anniversary with the department, said. "We lost a great man. He had cancer four times before it finally got to his pancreas."
Late last year, another member of the department received a cancer diagnosis. This time, Assistant Chief Kevin Kimple was facing the disease head-on. Kimple has been involved in the fire service – both volunteer and career – for 30 years.
Thankfully, Chief Kimple's cancer was caught early.
"Doctors removed half of one of his kidneys, and they were able to remove everything," Wentzell-Cuc said.
Cancer has now affected not only Wentzell-Cuc's own family but her firefighting family as well. For that reason, she and the department signed LION's "Not In Our House" pledge, part of a program to raise awareness and provide information to help firefighters reduce their risk of exposure to carcinogens.
A push for cancer prevention
Wentzell-Cuc didn't become a career firefighter until she was 35 years old, which is the age cutoff for most departments in West Virginia.
"Fortunately, I passed the physical agility and written portion and eventually got hired on just in time," she said.
Prior to becoming a Moundsville firefighter, she worked as an EMT and a county medical examiner.
One thing, however, hasn't changed over the years: She's always paid close attention to the connection between firefighters and cancer.
"I have always pushed people to wash their gear, their hoods, everything," she said. "Some people think I'm nagging them. I'm doing this because I care. It's always been a concern and interest for me. I do a lot of research into it, and I've been trying to push hard in this area."
The department recently added a particulate hood, which blocks 99 percent of particulates, to its PPE.
"We all have one particulate hood, and we're looking to buy a second one so that when one is dirty we can wash it and have the other one to protect us," Wentzell-Cuc said.
They also started using products designed to remove hydrocarbon contaminants from their gear and any equipment they may use, as well as deep-cleaning the apparatus.
"Any time our vehicles have been taken out of service, we've actually pulled everything off the trucks and cleaned them inside and out – any of our tools, equipment, helmets, SCBA bottles," she said. "Any time they're exposed, they get cleaned with that."
The department is currently working with city council officials to secure a backup set of turnout gear as well, so that they have more time to properly decontaminate soiled gear between calls.
"Our ultimate goal is to get better with on-scene decon," she said. "We use fire wipes, but we can't do gross decon because it would soak our gear and we don't have a second set to change into."
Now that the department has been affected by cancer twice, Wentzell-Cuc said their push to evolve is greater than ever.
Evolving as a fire service
Firefighters around the country, like Chief Clarke, are succumbing to occupational cancer at a young age.
"Fifty years old. That's way too early – that's only the beginning of someone's life. If you want to be here, it's not cool to walk around in dirty gear anymore," said Wentzell-Cuc. "We have to evolve as a fire service. We have to make changes according to the science and proof that's out there so that we can be around for our families."
For firefighters who are still hesitant, she said, said there's going to be a time when it will become overwhelming.
"They're going to go to a class and someone is going to say, 'Why is your helmet and gear so dirty?' They're going to be embarrassed," she said.
After all, if the fire service were to always to remain the same, then firefighters would still be putting out fires with water buckets.
"I am grateful that I work at a department that realizes the need to evolve, and I'm glad to see that a lot of other departments in the community are getting on board with it as well," Wentzell-Cuc said.