My Brothers’ Burden Walk: Marching For the Lives of Firefighters

Ashley Hunter, ECB Publishing, Inc.

The jobs of firefighters are usually dangerous; when others run away from fires, explosions, disasters and danger, firefighters run directly into the threat. Firefighters know the risks of their jobs; they know that every day may be their last. Every burning building can become their tomb, a car fire can result in an explosion, or a forest fire can become a dangerous maze.
But how frequently are firefighters warned that the most dangerous aspect of their job isn't the flames, but rather the building chemicals, the flame retardants, the toxic smoke that boils up black during fires?
They can fight fires, run bravely into an engulfed building, but the danger that threatens firefighters today is more often smaller, more unnoticeable and much harder to fight.
According to the CDC, firefighters are 14 percent more likely to develop cancer than the general public and twice as likely to be diagnosed with skin and testicular cancer or mesothelioma – a cancer caused by asbestos that attacks the lining of the lungs, heart or abdomen.
Despite those statistics, Florida lawmakers do not presume that firefighters who die or are left disabled by cancer could have contracted the illness within their line of duty. As such, when a firefighter dies from cancer, his or her family get nothing but the medical bills.
Tom “Bull” Hill is walking to change that.
On March 20, aided by a committee that had helped put the plan together, Bull set out from Mile Marker 0 in the Florida Keys, with the aim to walk all the way to the state capitol in Tallahassee.
The walk is personal to Bull, who is a retired firefighter from the Orange County Fire Rescue.
Bull has sat alongside two of his fellow firefighters from Orange County, Stephen “Shakey” Vanravenswaay and John Perez, and watched while both men died from cancer that Bull believes they contracted due to their line of work.
“Both were ashamed that they were leaving their families with nothing,” said Bull, who walked into Jefferson County on Monday, May 7. “They both said that within their last few days. That really haunted me.”
Florida is one of the few states that has nothing in place to help the families of cancer-fighting firefighters. Only 12 states continue to refuse to have a presumptive-cancer law, and Bull's crew is walking to get that changed in Florida.
“We have nothing in place. If you read the reasons and go through the silliness of it, it's really crazy,” said Bull. “The State of Florida funds the University of Miami, and they are leading researchers in the study of cancers in firefighters throughout the years.” Bull added that the university has confirmed that firefighters are more at risk for multiple types of cancers...but once those research papers make their way into the hands of lawmakers, the ball gets dropped. “They either don't believe it, or lobbyists say something and they table it,” said Bull.
During his whole walk up to Jefferson County, Bull stated that no senators had reached out to his crew, despite the massive media coverage on the walk. The few people who had reached out, mainly local lawmakers and a few House Representatives, Bull said they placed blame on each other, with no one wanting to take responsibility.
“To me, it's a shame that this even has to be done this way,” added Bull.
Even though the journey has been tough, sitting with “Shakey” Vanravenswaay, Bull made a promise to a dying man, one he has kept and plans to continue keeping. “I told him that I would make a promise and that I would do something to help make a change,” said Bull. Later, while sitting with John Perez, that promise was rekindled. “He told me, 'if you just walk, don't quit, something big will happen in this state', and thats how it started,” said Bull. “I had no real plans other than just following through what these two men said.”
Four months after Perez's death, Bull was in the Florida Keys, starting his journey to Tallahassee.
Despite the grief that inspired the walk, and the haunting need for change, the walk has been a positive factor for some.
“There have been eight-ten widows who have walked [with us], and they say they feel so much better after they've done this,” said Bull. Families have joined with Bull, walking with him, rallying behind him. A petition was raised with the goal to gain 50,000 signatures, which it reached over the May 12-13 weekend.
“For forty some odd days, walking close to 700 miles, it's the same thing over and over again,” said Bull. Each day, Bull meets new families who have lost their firefighting loved ones. Sons and daughters without fathers, husbands and wives without spouses, parents who have lost their firefighting children, the stories pour in and more names, more patches, more badges, are added.
When Bull started his walk on March 20, he carried one backpack adorned with 87 patches, badges, shields and names of fallen firefighters.
That has since grown to around 800 names, and six other packs which are carried by Bull's fellow walkers.
“People want this done,” said Bull. “As crazy as it sounds, I walked out on faith. I couldn't even imagine what is happening would happen.”
When Bull's crew marched into Jefferson County, the Jefferson County Fire Rescue (JCFR) met them at the Jefferson/Madison county line and escorted them all the way to the Leon County line, with quite a few JCFR firefighters walking alongside Bull and sharing the load of carrying the name and badge laden backpacks.
“To the best of our knowledge, no Jefferson County firefighter has died of work related cancer,” said JCFR Deputy Chief Derrick Burrus, adding that one of the FireMedics, however, is a cancer survivor. The JCFR presented Bull with a challenge coin from their department for him to carry onto the rest of his journey.
Monday night, the crew was housed overnight in Jefferson County's Station 1, where a presentation was provided on Tuesday Morning about the 800+ fallen firefighters who were the names behind the badges and shields on the seven backpacks. The walk continued throughout Tuesday, the crew rested on Wednesday, and Thursday, May 9, they marched up onto the steps of the capitol, with five firefighters representing JCFR during the march to the capitol building.
The walk may be complete, but the fight is far from over. Now begins perhaps the most exhausting aspect of their campaign: convincing lawmakers to hear their voices make a change that will provide firefighters with the provisions they need for work-related illnesses.
The petition is still open, and can be found at ipetitions.com/petition/march-of-the-bull. Those interested in staying up to date with Bull's campaign can also tune into the Facebook page, MyBrothers BurdenWalk.