Dylan Mills is a nine-year veteran of the Duluth Fire Department and a fire equipment operator, meaning he gets to drive the trucks.
He followed his late father, Fire Capt. Bob Mills, into the department. And while Dylan said he can't be sure the brain cancer that took his father was related their occupation, Mills was front and center with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Mayor Emily Larson, Fire Chief Dennis Edwards and several peers on Wednesday at the downtown Duluth fire hall, where the Klobuchar-backed Firefighter Cancer Registry was the topic of the day.
"This will give us knowledge," Mills said of the national registry. "They're going to add all the information together so that we can begin to fight this systematically."
The goal of the registry, signed into federal law earlier this year, is to monitor and study the relationship between career-long exposure to fumes, carcinogens and toxins and the seemingly increasing incidence of cancer in firefighters.
"We're seeing some cancers in firefighters at two to three times the rate of the general public," Edwards said.
There are more electronics in structure fires than ever before, Klobuchar said, adding that building materials have changed, too. What used to be a badge of honor — wearing the grit and smell of soot on the gear — has been reconsidered as part of the risks of being a firefighter.
"We know firefighters are heroes and that they have to show courage every single day," Klobuchar said. "They've shown commitment to us, and we need to commit to them."
To help address the issue of contaminants, the city of Duluth has purchased backup turnout gear for every firefighter, so that they can return to the station in soiled gear and go to their next call in fresh stuff. The city has also added special washing machines to every fire station that extract contaminants.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will keep the database and study it to determine if there is a link between cancer and fighting fires. Cancer in both professional and volunteer firefighters is being cataloged as part of the research.
"As a fire service we're good problem solvers," Mills said. "This is a new problem for us."