West Chester firefighter’s death brings job’s cancer dangers to focus

The death of a Butler County firefighter serves as a sobering reminder of the dangers firefighters face long after the flames are extinguished and the smoke clears.

“It was a badge of honor back in the day to be a smoke-eater and to have the dirtiest fire gear,” Cincinnati firefighter Gerald Rosemeyer said. “Little did we know it would come back to bite us. Now we know better.”

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Firefighters from multiple departments in Butler County and the Cincinnati region were among the hundreds Tuesday who paid their final respects to West Chester firefighter Tim Burns.

Burns, 48, died last week after a battle with occupational renal (kidney) cancer.

There should be no doubt that Burns’ cancer was a result of his career as a firefighter, said Doug Stern of Ohio Professional Fire Fighters.

Firefighters are exposed to a toxic soup of soot, smoke, and carcinogens every time they enter a burning structure, he said.

“Those toxins absorb through our skin and get into our bloodstream where organs like our kidneys filter out those carcinogens to clean the blood,” Stern said.

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A study by the Center for Disease Prevention and Control says firefighters are twice as likely as the general U.S. population to be diagnosed with cancer.

Kidney cancer is among the “cancers of primary concern” for firefighters listed in the study.

The “Michael Louis Palumbo Jr. Act,” which helps firefighters diagnosed with certain types of cancer as a result of their job, was signed into law in January by Gov. John Kasich.

Glendale Fire Chief Kevin Hardwick, said Burns’ mission to educate the public about the dangers of cancer facing firefighters was heroic and mindful of what the first ever fire chief in the United States.

“The first fire chief in the U.S., chief Ben Franklin, always said ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,’ and that really and truly applies here,” Hardwick said.

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Burns was instrumental in helping discuss preventative measures his colleagues could use to stay safe, according to Rosemeyer.

“When (the “Michael Louis Palumbo Jr. Act”) was passed, he knew all about it and had read up on it,” Rosemeyer said. “Tim wanted other firefighters to know and understand the dangers of cancer.”

When Burns went through his training class decades ago, he was told most firefighters die from heart attacks, Rosemeyer said.

“Cancer wasn’t thought of at the time,” he said.

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Burns was “a fighter, who would do anything for his family and the people he served with,” said West Chester Fire Chief Rick Prinz.

Burns served with the West Chester Fire Department for 19 years and Prinz remembered some of the fun they had when they knew each other in high school.

“He had a brown Monte Carlo in high school and I had a Cutlass. It was always a competition who had the better car and who could get to high school the fastest on a Friday to secure a date,” Prinz shared to laughter from the crowd. “Looking back I realize that Tim’s strength was his sincere friendship and his ability to be your friend. No matter what, I knew I could always count on Tim.”

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He added that Burns loved spending time with his wife, Vicki, and their twin sons, Spencer and Zachary, whether it was outside camping, or just enjoying each other’s company.

“Every citizen and firefighter is with you today and we will always be with you,” he told Burns’ family.

Burns spent more than 30 years of his career in fire service, working in New Burlington, Springfield Twp., Colerain Twp., Springdale, Liberty Twp. and the village of Glendale in addition to West Chester Twp.

Members of several local fire departments helped staff West Chester’s fire department Tuesday so firefighters could attend Burns’ funeral service.

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