By Seth Daniel
The death of Chelsea Firefighter Peter Kannler, which happened way too fast and way too young, while on active duty and from a cancer that is recognized to be a result of his work as a firefighter, has been a wake up call for the Chelsea Fire Department – as union leaders and management leaders in the Department are calling for a change in the way the job is done nationwide.
Kannler, 37, who left two young children and a wife, fought a battle with stomach and esophageal and liver cancer for about one year before passing away on Saturday, Sept. 3. Before his death though, firefighters in Chelsea said he participated in research studies to help prevent ‘active duty’ firefighter deaths from cancer, and like in his life, he wasn’t quiet about what was happening to him.
“He wanted people to know about his cancer and the way it’s affecting our firefighters in Chelsea and beyond,” said Lt. Brian Capistran, president of the local union. “He wanted to prevent as many as possible, no matter what age or gender, from dying of this disease. The way we’re going to honor Peter is our members are going to take a careful look at our operations. Our safety is going to come first. We are going to make a point of decontaminating our equipment after a fire. The days of the macho old firefighter coming out of a burning building covered in soot are over. We have to think differently. A house fire nowadays is a hazardous material situation.
“Pete is going to be missed,” he continued. “I greatly respected him. He and I were built the same way – telling it like it is and dealing with things later. It’s going to take a while for all of us to get over this.”
Added Firefighter Dave Asci, who served for years on Engine 2 with Kannler, “He really put himself out there to do those studies. It was important to him that people know what firefighters are risking.”
Remembering Kannler has brought on a lot of great memories in the firehouse, especially on Engine 2 – likely the busiest engine in the nation per capita, where Kannler worked. He wore a mohawk all the time and was covered with tattoos, including a tattoo of a mustache on his finger that he used to hold on his upper lip – another example of his constant practical joking nature.
He was famous for elaborate practical jokes, including wallpapering the mechanic’s office and repair manuals one night with hundreds of pictures of Justin Bieber.
Asci said Kannler was the type of firefighter that didn’t seek the spotlight and shunned away from commendations or awards, but certainly was a guy you wanted next to you in a dangerous situation. Beyond that, Asci said that despite Kannler’s rough look and “tell it like it is at all costs” personality, he was a caring man – a family man – who was ready to drop everything for his wife and kids and brothers in the fire service.
“I had a rough year last year and in the middle of it, as sick as Peter was, before I could tell him fully what was happening, he wanted to know what he could do to help me,” said Asci. “He was so sick and he just wanted to help other people. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
But there was a serious firefighter side to Kannler as well, and as an instructor at the Mass Fire Academy and a firefighter with great interest in getting equipment and training from Homeland Security, Kannler brought Chelsea Fire into a new era by advocating for resources the Department had never concentrated on. He attended numerous regional meetings and was responsible for securing grants for safety equipment and training.
With that spirit, Deputy Chief John Quatieri and Chief Leonard Albanese have pledged to change their operations and the culture within the firehouse – particularly around safety and decontaminating equipment upon returning from an incident.
“From a command perspective, we need to rotate our firefighters in and out more often and be thinking about their safety,” said Quatieri. “We can’t leave them in a burning building as long as we’ve been doing. They’re getting beat up and exposed to too many of the carcinogens in a modern house fire. We’ve been making do too long and that needs to change.”
Already, the Department has invested in four hydrogen cyanide meters to measure air quality inside a fire, and they will have one member of the crew responsible for monitoring those meters during a fire. If conditions inside are toxic enough, they will remove firefighters from those dangerous conditions – something that many departments are not yet thinking about.
“It’s affecting every department,” said Quatieri. “You just don’t hear about it as much. When firefighters die in a fire, that gets a lot of publicity, as it should, but with the cancer, it happens every day and doesn’t get much publicity.”
Capistran said firefighters are 60 percent more at risk for certain cancers like Kannler had than the normal civilian. That is a little known fact outside the fire service, but even within the fire service the reality of that has been slow to sink in as old habits die hard.
Chief Albanese shared statistics about firefighter deaths, noting that, since 2000, a majority of firefighter deaths have been due to occupational cancers. In 2014, nationwide, nearly 70 percent of deaths were due to those types of cancers rather than direct firefighting work.
“Today’s fire, a lot of what burns is plastics and foams and flame retardants,” said Capistran. “It burns faster and hotter and it’s a silent killer. A lot of what burned back in the day, when firefighters like my dad were on, was wood. We may not have as many fires as back then, but these fires are deadlier and the conditions are more toxic.”
All four Chelsea Fire members said they plan to take Kannler’s message not only to their own crews, but also to the departments around them and those as far as their message can reach.
“Pete left enough information to help the researchers find a cure,” said Capistran. “His message was that he wanted to protect us more, to smarten us up, prevent exposure, decontaminate our gear and, importantly, he wanted it to be a wake up call for everyone.”