Every year on the last Sunday in September, people gather at the Fallen Firefighter Memorial on the grounds of the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul.

"We don't do much to mark the day locally," Duluth Fire Department Capt. Pete Johnson said on Minnesota Fallen Firefighters Memorial Day, "but we do like to take the opportunity to talk about those who we have lost in the line of duty or who have succumbed to job-related illnesses such as cancer or heart disease, which have been linked to their careers."

Johnson said he views this day as a chance to "reflect on the sacrifice and service" of firefighters over the generations.

"If you look back at that memorial, there are firefighters on that wall who have died because a horse got spooked," Johnson said. "Or because they fell off the bumper while responding to a call, because that's where we used to ride. Today, we have firefighters on that wall who died from cancer. That's rapidly becoming the number one killer of firefighters."

Duluth has lost 19 firefighters to either job-related illness or in the line of duty. The most recent one, Robert Mills, in 2010, was from a form of brain cancer that's common among fire service workers.

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"In recognizing that, we're trying to limit the exposure to those carcinogens by doing a number of things," Johnson said. "We have washers in the station to clear our gear right away. We were able to secure a second set of turnout gear so that if our gear gets contaminated, we have another set to wear while we wash those so we're not getting exposed again and again."

With driver and passenger wearing masks, Duluth Fire Department’s Engine 1 leaves headquarters. 
Steve Kuchera / 2020 file / Duluth News Tribune
With driver and passenger wearing masks, Duluth Fire Department’s Engine 1 leaves headquarters. Steve Kuchera / 2020 file / Duluth News Tribune

Johnson said it's been difficult to gain recognition for their exposure.

"There's always an out for employers to say, 'We don't think that's job-related,'" Johnson said. "That creates an extra hurdle where we have to try to prove something is linked to the job. That's something we'd like to see changed in the future."

Johnson said there are hazards that people don't commonly think about in relation to firefighters' work.

"When you sign up for the job, you know there are those inherent risks," Johnson said. "But we tend to think of things like falling through a roof or having a building collapse or something exploding. We don't think of risks such as chronic sleep deprivation, exposure to toxic flame retardants, and just the mental health toll a lifetime of responding to emergency calls can take."

Johnson said the firefighters have continued to address these issues as they've arisen over the years.

"We continue to adapt," he said. "We don't ride on bumpers anymore; we sit inside the engines wearing seat belts. Hopefully, we'll continue to adapt to care for our firefighters as we continue to find job-related issues."