Fallen firefighter ceremony highlights line-of-duty cancer risks

By Makenna Mays

INDIANAPOLIS — Loran Johnston was the recipient of a red flower Wednesday — a symbol of the sacrifice her husband made in the line of duty as a firefighter.

Loran Johnston speaking to those who came to the memorial.
Photo by Makenna Mays, TheStatehousefile.com

Joel Johnston, who served with the Indianapolis Fire Department for 16 years, was one of hundreds honored during the Indiana Fallen Firefighters Annual Remembrance ceremony that took place at the monument outside the Statehouse.

“We would do anything to not be here and have Joel with us, but we can’t change that and so we try to make a positive out of that,” Loran Johnston said after the ceremony.

Joel Johnston’s name will be added to Law Enforcement and Firefighters Memorial. He died Oct. 15, 2015 from cancer that was a result of his job as a firefighter.

As firefighters are exposed to flames and fumes, they can encounter cancer-causing toxins. They are two times more likely than the general population to contract testicular cancer, said Capt. Tim McDonnell, Indianapolis firefighter and Firefighter Cancer Support Network board member. They are 1.5 times more likely to contract non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and 1.3 times more likely to contract brain cancer.

“This is nothing short of the plague. It is decimating the fire service,” McDonnell said during the ceremony.

To potentially help prevent firefighters from contracting cancer, McDonnell wants firefighters to have improved physicals with extended testing for early detection. He also said firefighters always need access to clean gear to prevent unnecessary exposure to toxins.

“Gone are the days when the dirty, sooty fire gear was considered a badge of honor,” he said.

McDonnell was quick to point out the hesitancy firefighters can have when adapting to change, and the leadership qualities that must be had when trying to enforce new policy.

Governor Holcomb with bagpipists at the Indiana fallen firefighters annual rememberance.
Photo by Makenna Mays, TheStatehouseFile.com

“Being a chief officer is not about being popular, it’s about leadership,” said McDonnell. “It’s about recognizing a shift in conditions which would require a new policy to effect a change in behavior to enhance the safety and well-being of the people that you are responsible for.”

Loran Johnston described the ceremony as bittersweet. While she misses her husband, she is glad to be able to honor him and shine some light on a cause close to her heart.

“We have to find the silver lining, and that silver lining is — that one other person gets help or gets assistance from this fight,” she said, “and that it has all been worth it.”

Makenna Mays is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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