Portland firefighters stand vigil over fallen colleague's urn
Portland Fire & Rescue Lt. Jerry Richardson died at age 56 after a three-year battle with lung cancer on Nov. 19. He had served the city for 22 years before the deadly disease caused by fighting multiple fires was discovered.
This week, his colleagues are honoring him by standing two-hour watches at his urn at Station 21, in a traditional ceremony with roots in the paramilitary structure of fire departments.
Portland firefighters filled all available shifts within two hours of them being available. The solemn vigils will last thorough Dec. 4.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Mayor Ted Wheeler also ordered flags to be flown at half-staff for four days to honor Richardson.
Various forms of cancer are presumed occupational risks for firefighters. Many are caused by exposure to toxic chemicals in smoke at fires. Cancer has long been among the top causes of deaths for Portland fire bureau employees.
"Please take a moment to stop and ponder the selfless and dangerous work so many in our city do to keep us safe," Portland Fire Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said.
Fire bureau spokesman Terry Foster said safety was almost a secondary consideration when he and Richardson were hired decades ago.
"When you first come in you just care about running into the (burning) building," Foster said. "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."
Times have changed. Today, Fire Chief Sara Boone said, safety is much higher priority. Today, Boone said, firefighters are required to shower within the hour of returning from a fire to wash away dangerous particulates, apparatus have been re-design to keep firefighters away from diesel exhaust and dirty firefighter turnouts are kept out of living spaces and cleaned thoroughly.
"We have also purchased a back-up set of turnouts for each firefighter so they can clean dirty turnouts after each fire, particulate blocking hoods and installed diesel exhaust removal systems in stations," Boone said. "As we have learned more, we have implemented many other cancer reduction safety measures."
Firefighters are encouraged to seek an on-duty annual physical examination to detect any cancer early when it is much more treatable, Boone said.
"In addition, we keep firefighter exposure logs from incident responses to create a causal link between responses and occupational disease. As more information arises from research about cancer causing issues, Portland Fire & Rescue and our Safety committee will continue to make policy recommendations and changes to be proactive in keeping our members safe."
Disability and death benefits for Portland firefighters are provided by the city Fire & Police Disability & Retirement Fund. Director Samuel Hutchison said it does not track how many Portland firefighters qualify for cancer-related benefits, but that challenges are very rare.
"I can only remember a few times, and that was only in circumstances like when a firefighter diagnosed with lung cancer was known to have been a heavy smoker," said Hutchison.
Richardson was preceded in death by his brother EddieÂ Richardson, cousins Jeff Reynolds and Neil Reynolds, stepfather Clint Withers, and his grandparents. He is survived by his wife Heather, his children Eddie Kaylee, his father Harold, mother Sharon, and many extended family members and friends.
On Saturday, Dec. 4, theÂ RichardsonÂ family and Portland Fire & Rescue will hold a private Celebration of Life service at New Heights Church in Vancouver, WA, at 11:00 am. The Portland Fire Honor Guard will be presenting full fire service honors for LieutenantÂ Richardson. Full military honors will be provided at a later date when Lt.Â RichardsonÂ is laid to rest.The service will be streamed here:Â youtu.be/CEDuraH3zxE
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