VANCOUVER, Wash. (KOIN) — Just 4 years ago, Joe Killian retired from the Clark County Fire District 6 after a 26-year career as a firefighter and paramedic.

Clark County Fire District 6 firefighter Joe Killian in an undated department photo (Clark County Fire District 6)

But shortly after he retired he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He lost his battle. Joe Killian was 56.

This week, during Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month, he will be honored by those who knew him best.

“Joe just had such a big heart — that even if it was somebody’s worst day, maybe their loved one passed away, Joe had that calming demeanor and that professionalism that really put people to ease,” said Clark County Fire District 6 Chief Kristan Maurer.

Killian’s fate is all too common among firefighters. Cancer is the number one cause of death for firefighters, far outpacing those who die fighting the fires. Of all the names added to the International Association of Firefighters Memorial over the past 6 years, 75% died of cancer.

Boots in bronze at the Fallen Fire Fighters Memorial in Colorado Springs, Colorado (Courtesy)

Firefighters are exposed to many carcinogens and other hazards in the line of duty.

“Firefighters have chronic exposure to heat, smoke, toxins — everything bad that’s produced in a fire,” Maurer said.

To try and protect others from the dangers that took Killian’s life Clark County Fire District 6 is taking steps to mitigate the hazards. So are many other fire districts across the country.

The steps range from decontamination of equipment and gear after every incident and physical improvements at fire stations, improvements called Healthy In-Healthy Out.

“A lot of that is getting our turnouts and our gear out of the truck bay, where the engines are parked, because the diesel for those engines gets absorbed into that gear,” Maurer said. “So our new station design has that all separate with its own ventilation system.”

Joe Killian’s memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday, January 18, at the Liberty Church of the Nazarene in Vancouver. A procession of firefighters will leave the Clark County Fairgrounds at 10 a.m., so there will likely be traffic disruptions.

The public is invited and the service will be livestreamed through the Liberty Church website.