VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – Cancer is now the number one killer of firefighters nationwide.
The Virginia Beach Fire Department is honoring its own fallen brother, Capt. Matt Chiaverotti, who passed away just a little more than a month ago while working to prevent another heartbreaking loss.
As Chevy fought his tough battle with anaplastic thyroid cancer, the reality of the hidden risks hiding in the smoke became so much greater.
“In 1977 Francis L. Brannigan wrote, ‘Know your enemy and the building is your enemy,'” said retired Virginia Beach Fire Capt. Tim Riley. “In 2023, cancer is our enemy.”
An already dangerous job is becoming more dangerous.
The added risk factor? Occupational cancer.
In 2022, the International Association of Fire Fighters said 469 names were added to the Fallen Fire Memorial – 348 of those, or about 75%, died from occupational cancer, like Chevy.
“We need to change our culture and attitude because cancer sucks,” said Riley while speaking to firefighters at Chiaverotti’s funeral.
Riley told firefighters just last month at Chevy’s funeral that we must seek knowledge to better understand this invisible killer.
He said the sense of loss the department is experiencing right now should be the driving force to advocate for better practices.
Hundreds of firefighters lined the street at Chiaverotti’s funeral last month.
Chevy responded to hundreds of dangerous calls throughout his time with the Virginia Beach Fire Department and with FEMA.
He deployed to the earthquake in Haiti, the Surfside Condominium Collapse in Florida and the Good Friday plane crash in Virginia Beach.
A call – fellow Virginia Beach Firefighter, Chris Isdell, remembers as a recruit.
“We heard it, we saw the column once it crashed and we kind of huddled up our instructor said hey were going to send you guys down there to help out,” said Isdell.
It happened on April 6, 2012, when a Navy fighter jet suffered double engine failure shortly after take-off, crashing into an apartment complex.
Isdell said he remembers moving hoses, as HAZMAT crews monitored chemicals rising into the air.
“If you were near the scene then you were breathing that stuff in, so there’s no way around that,” said Isdell.
Isdell and Chevy were two of the several firefighters diagnosed with different types of cancer years after responding to that call.
Isdell had half his thyroid removed last fall, after an x-ray showed a concerning abnormality.
“I imagined when I was 60 or 70, I’d probably get cancer, but being 31, 32 it was kind of surprising,” Isdell said.
Isdell is now cancer-free and is captain of Ladder 16.
He and his fellow firefighters will never know whether or not the Good Friday jet crash is the reason they got cancer, but it’s a call many of them were on together.
The department says they’ve seen a rising number of health issues come up for firefighters who’ve responded to that call.
As research exposes more hidden dangers of this silent killer, the department is taking additional measures to prevent firefighters, just like Isdell, from being exposed to more harmful chemicals than they already face.
“Our gear is going to be in a big plastic bag when we get back,” Isdell said.
Each firefighter in Virginia Beach has a second set of gear, so the gear they wore on the call can be washed in one of these special washers before they go out again.
Most houses have the special washers, and if they don’t, there’s a house that has them nearby that they can use.
“This is not your typical residential clothes washer, so this is actually like an extractor, so we have certain chemical blends that will actually remove the contaminants and neutralize it and then get rid of it,” Isdell said.
After coming out of the building, firefighters are staying on oxygen longer too to make sure they’re breathing clean air.
And they’re scrubbed down in their gear after calls to reduce exposure and prevent harmful chemicals from getting into the truck.
“I know its extra steps and it takes a little bit longer,” Isdell said. “It’s not the cool thing to do but it’s the right thing to do.”
This week, the department is also holding Galleri testing for all current and retired Virginia Beach firefighters if they wish to participate.
It’s a blood test that detects more than 50 types of cancer.
It’s one of the practices the department has added because of the growing cancer risk among firefighters – and because of Chevy.
“I think if we want to be around for our families or friends, it’s better to know sooner than later so you can have the appropriate treatments and you can beat it,” Isdell said.
Another firefighter who fought the battle of his life and won said early detection is key.
Retired Capt. John Coston was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2020 and said it’s not a type of cancer than runs in his family.
He served the department for 38 years, going on calls like one at the Avalon Hotel in 1983.
“When I came in, you almost never wore a breathing apparatus outside a building,” Coston said. “Even if you anticipated going in, you’d put the face piece on but you wouldn’t connect the hose, so you’d wait and save that air for when you’re actually going in.”
Coston said that when you see the flames, you think it’s just a fire, but it can be so much more than that.
“You really don’t think about the things that might come back and get you later,” Coston said.
Both Coston and Isdell know these dangers come along with the job, but this isn’t a battle they thought they’d have to fight.
“It’s always in the back of your mind, but when it happens and the age that it happened at was a little surprising,” Isdell said.
“These things exist,” Coston added. “I mean they’re out there and you never know what, when. You never know what you’re going to confront in life.”
Back in the day, Isdell and Coston said it was a badge of honor to have smoke-filled gear because it meant you saw a lot of fires.
They said nowadays, it’s more of a badge of honor to have clean gear and to take care of yourself and each other.
And despite the diagnosis, they said they’d put that uniform on all over again.
“We’re there on their worst day and we’re there to try to make it better,” Coston said. “It’s enjoyment to do that, to help people.”
“It’s hard to find a job that you can go home and know that you’re making a difference,” Isdell said.
Just like Chevy made a difference in their lives.
“He was one of my role models,” Isdell said. “I always looked up to him. That’s the kind of guy I want to be.”
Said Coston: “He was about being a firefighter.”
Meaning that, as the enemy gets stronger, the efforts to continue to advocate for best practices do too – detecting a new plan to beat it, because of Chevy.
Firefighters don’t need to have an appointment for the Galleri Multi-Cancer Early Detection Blood Test for current and retired Virginia Beach firefighters.
It’s happening at the Harry E. Diezel Fire Training Center at 927 S. Birdneck Road in Virginia Beach.
It’s free for current Virginia Beach firefighters and retirees who responded to the jet crash. The price is reduced for all other Virginia Beach fire retirees.