Governor Tim Walz declared Sunday Minnesota Fallen Firefighters Memorial Day and asked for flags to fly at half staff in remembrance of those who have died while serving in the line of duty.

Fire equipment operator Dylan Mills with the Duluth Fire Department has a personal connection to this day. His father, Fire Capt. Robert Mills, is one of the 19 firefighters with the department who died in the line of duty. The department's marine unit is named Marine 19 in honor of those 19 men.

"He was with the department for 29 years," Mills said. "That was before I started. We never got to work together as he was diagnosed with cancer and forced to retire at some point."

Robert died in 2010 of a form of brain cancer that's more common among fire service workers. Just last September, Mills and his family spent this same weekend out in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at the International Association of Fire Fighters Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial where his father's name was added to a wall of remembrance.

"It was pretty special to be out there for that," Mills said. "It was a neat way to honor him, with firefighters from all over the U.S. and Canada gathered together. It's weird to think of it now, considering how many people were crowded together. With COVID, it makes it seem like 10 years ago."

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This year's memorial service took place virtually with a video service shared online.

For Mills, it's not just a day of remembrance

"It's definitely a day to reflect, but also a chance to look at what we can do to prevent these kinds of things from happening," Mills said.

Expectations and dangers for firefighters have grown exponentially in the past decade. While the basics of extinguishing fires remains somewhat the same, Mills said there are aspects of the job that are more difficult to deal with.

"Cancer is one of them, along with mental health and safety in general," he said. "We have to deal with things like (post-traumatic stress disorder) and health concerns, like COVID. We have to acknowledge these things, and talk about them so that tomorrow we can continue to make this a safer place, not just for us, but for the citizens we serve."

Along with the rising challenges, Mills said he's seen the department make some changes and improvements to help support firefighters in his 10 years of experience. They've taken steps to mitigate cancer risk by changing equipment. The department has developed peer support groups to open up dialogues about mental health. And there's a new focus on wellness in general among the firefighters, thanks to a wellness program partnership with the College of St. Scholastica.

"At the end of the day, more firefighters die of heart attacks than anything else," Mills said. "So we're trying to provide more opportunities for extensive health screenings and work on physical health and wellness."

Steps like these help keep firefighters in good condition to face whatever issues might arise tomorrow.