The North Carolina Industrial Commission has ruled that the death of 34-year-old Will Willis, an engineer with the Asheville Fire Department who had “a rare subtype of translocation renal cell carcinoma” in a kidney, was incurred in the line of duty.
Cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters, the Firefighter Cancer Support Network reported, saying that 70 percent of in-the-line-of-duty deaths since 2016 were caused by cancer.
The ruling means Willis’ family will receive full benefits offered to any other firefighter who died in the line of duty. In addition to survivor benefits, Willis’ three sons and daughter will have their college education paid for, should they attend a public university in North Carolina.
Asheville Fire Chief, Scott Burnette, said this is the second time that the N.C. Industrial Commission has made this ruling about a firefighter who has died after battling cancer.
In February, Burnette said four active Asheville firefighters had been diagnosed with cancer in the past year, a number that included Willis.
According to NIOSH, firefighters are exposed to smoke, soot, and fumes from fires that contain substances classified by NIOSH as potential occupational carcinogens or by the National Toxicology Program as known human carcinogens or substances reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.
These may include byproducts of combustion such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, as well as contaminants from building products such as asbestos and formaldehyde.
NIOSH says fire services should increase efforts to educate members about safe work practices. This includes proper training, proper use of protective clothing, and proper use of approved respiratory protection during all phases of firefighting.