Portland Fire & Rescue Lt. Jerry Richardson died after a three-year battle with lung cancer on Nov. 19. Mayor Ted Wheeler ordered city flags to be lowered to half-staff to honor his 22 years of service.
"Please take a moment to stop and ponder the selfless and dangerous work so many in our city do to keep us safe," said Portland Fire Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, noting that cancer is a presumed occupational hazard for firefighters.
"Richardson served the City of Portland for 22 years before it was discovered that the toxic chemicals from years of battling multiple fires had impacted his lungs to the point of developing a very deadly form of cancer. Lt. Richardson was a well-respected member of PF&R, serving in many important roles in the operations and training divisions before landing at one of his favorite roles as a Lieutenant at Station 17, home of Fire & Rescue boat 17. He displayed all the qualities that I have come to admire from the men and women of this incredible Fire Bureau, whose mission is the life safety of all Portlanders. He displayed these qualities until the very end. He considered this organization his family and he wanted nothing more than to be with them until his body would no longer allow for him to do so," Hardesty continued.
"Portland Fire & Rescue lost an extraordinary firefighter yesterday to occupational cancer. Lt. Jerry Richardson was a beloved brother, courageous leader and selfless servant who made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty," Portland Fire Fighters' Association, IAFF Local 43 said on its Facebook page. "This is a devastating loss for Portland Fire & Rescue and the Richardson family. We appreciate the community's support in our time of sorrow."
Portland Fire & Rescue Public Information Officer Terry Foster said some firefighters considered their own safety to be a secondary concern when he and Richardson were hired decades ago. Foster started in the department in 1998 at age 23 and said the first firefighter to train him died of cancer.
"When you first come in you just care about running into the building. We used to never wear self-contained breathing apparatus during overhaul. When I started, sometimes you'd be so tired you wouldn't shower. You'd put your stuff down and pass out in bed. Then you'd wake up in the morning and see how black your teeth are," said Foster. "The other thing they told us in the beginning, the average lifespan of a firefighter after retirement is five years. They told us that 25 years ago. I guess that's how long I'm going to live."
Portland Fire & Rescue Safety Chief John Derr said firefighter safety is a higher priority now. He started volunteering for Portland Fire & Rescue in the early 1990s before joining full time in 1996.
"It is completely different from when I came in. So much has changed with the collective bargaining agreements. New people coming in across the industry are so much more protected against cancer than I was. We want people to have a 25- =to 30-year career serving the public and beat that in their retirement," said Derr, who remembered wearing paper masks or none at all when overhauling the aftermath of a fire and not always showering before bed.
"As we've moved through the decades, building materials, furniture, everything is using a lot more petroleum and chemical products. They're in, well, everything. They're cheaper, but those things burn hotter, and they burn faster and the 'off gas' is much more toxic. That's something our industry has really focused on in the last decade at least," Derr said
Portland Fire & Rescue has about 650 union firefighters, and around 165 are working each day.
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