South County firefighters prepare for big climb March 10

Brendan Cleary, left, with two of his firefighting colleagues at a past Firefighter Stair Climb. (Photos courtesy Brendan Cleary)

Twenty-six firefighters – five women and 21 men – from South County Fire will be participating in the 33rd annual LLS Firefighter Stair Climb at the Columbia Center building in downtown Seattle on March 10. Started by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) in 1987 as the Big Climb, the stair climb is a fundraiser to fund blood cancer research and support patients with leukemia, lymphoma and similar diseases. 

South County Fire firefighters will join other firefighters from across the nation and the world to climb the 69-flight stairway – 1,356 steps – with a 788-foot elevation to reach the top of the building.

“The biggest challenge I face, and I would imagine most others as well, it’s the physical aspect of climbing those 69 flights, on air, in your [50-pound] bunker gear,” said firefighter Brendan Cleary, who has been South County Fire’s team captain in the past few stair climbs. “The first time I ever climbed was back in 2017. The stairclimb has been a big impact to me and how I have viewed the challenges life has thrown at people other than myself.”

Cleary said that most firefighters train with a stair-climbing machine while sporting a weighted vest to simulate the firefighting gear. Some might train with their SCBA mask (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) while hooked into the air while they climb on the stair climber.

The annual event is sponsored by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

“Other than that, I have seen people go find stadiums to walk up and down the stairs or find a neighborhood park with a good stairway to walk on,” he said. 

Although the climb is physically demanding, Cleary said that each firefighter knows who they are climbing for. 

“There are pictures posted within the stairwell on every flight of the people who are currently fighting their battle with cancer, have lost their battle, or are current survivors,” he said. “Seeing their faces and knowing that their battle is much harder than anything that I have ever faced, especially the current stairclimb, motivates me to keep taking steps towards the top.”

The event is particularly meaningful for firefighters, who have a high cancer risk. The Firefighter Cancer Support Network reported that 68% of firefighters in the U.S. develop some form of cancer compared to 22% of the general population. They are at an increased risk of occupational cancer due to the smoke and hazardous chemicals they are exposed to in the line of duty. These carcinogens include asbestos, diesel exhaust and any polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that occur naturally in coal and gasoline.

The LLS suggests that firefighters clean and maintain their protective gear and SCBA mask properly and talk to their physician about their risk of getting cancer and getting regular screenings and check-ups.

Brendan Cleary and fellow firefighters gather at bottom of Seattle’s Columbia Center.

“This year, we (South County Fire) are dedicating our climb to someone close to us,” Cleary said. “A coworker’s 17-year-old son was just recently diagnosed with leukemia and is currently undergoing treatment for it. This is the reason we climb, to take care of those that we love.”

The LLS Firefighter Stair Climb aims to raise $3 million this year. The Seattle Firefighters Pipes and Drums will perform at the event. Donations can be made here.

Since its founding in 1949 in New York City, the LLS has raised about $1.7 billion in research funding and has helped advance more than 70% of blood cancer treatments in the past 20 years, according to the LLS 2023 annual report. These FDA-approved treatments include the nelarabine injection for T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia and lymphoma and Quizartinib for acute myeloid leukemia. 

If you or someone you know has been affected by blood cancer; LLS blood cancer information specialists are highly trained oncology social workers and nurses who provide free, personalized assistance to patients, families, and health care providers. LLS Information Specialists offer guidance through blood cancer treatment, financial and social challenges, and give accurate, up-to-date disease, treatment and support information. 

Call 1-800-955-4572 Mondays to Friday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Pacific Time.

— By Nick Ng

  1. You’re all awesome! Thank you for taking the challenge to save a life.
    I am a cancer survivor 12 years now.

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