Life, Firefighter, Lifestyle Magazine, Honouring Firefighters - CRACKYL MAGAZINE
By Julie Fitz-Gerald

With close to 20 years under his belt in the fire service, Jim Burneka Jr. is a go-getter who has learned a lot of life lessons. The biggest one: “If you see something that bugs you, don’t be afraid to talk about it.”

Currently a full-time Dayton firefighter, founder of Firefighter Cancer Consultants, Trustee of Dayton Firefighters Local 136 and past president of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN), communication has become a focus in every facet of Burneka’s life. Whether it’s with the guys at the hall, with his wife at home, speaking at conventions or interviewing someone for his podcast, two decades of firefighting have taught him that internalizing and bottling up issues leads to dark places. If he could tell his younger self one thing, it would be to TALK. 

Every fire department should have resources available, whether it’s specialists, a peer support team or even just your crew members,” Burneka explains. “It took a long time for me to really truly open up and talk about things that I was dealing with on the fire service. Especially with my wife. I didn’t want her to be scared or worried about me, I was protecting her, but the negative part of that was I was just consuming everything on the inside. It was eating me up and nobody had any idea.” 

Hired on as a career firefighter for the city of Dayton, Ohio in 2001, he found his calling in the fire service after his dad’s friend – a lieutenant for Dayton Fire – invited him on a ride-along. “They went to high school together, played soft ball together and he talked me into doing a ride-along as a teenager and I knew it right away,” he says.

Fast forward to today, and Burneka is now married and the proud father of two boys, aged four and seven. Burneka’s interest in preventing cancer in firefighters began back in 2005. He organized a fundraiser for a fellow union member’s five-year-old son who had been diagnosed with Ewings sarcoma, raising so much money that the family decided to donate the excess funds to the FCSN. When Burneka delivered the cheque to the FCSN, he became engrossed in the work the organization was doing.

On his 30th birthday, Burneka was named FCSN’s Vice President of Regions. “Back then it was taboo to talk about cancer in fire; it was uncomfortable and awkward. It was our role to talk about the studies out there, the prevention part and what we can do. We also looked at what we can do support-wise, setting them up with another firefighter who has been through it already.

In 2014, Burneka parted ways with FCSN and started Firefighter Cancer Consultants to help fire departments across the U.S. and Canada reduce their members’ exposure to cancer-causing carcinogens. “I’ve invested a lot of time and energy into the departments, the current practices and best practices for reducing risk of cancer. I visit the halls, assess everything and write a report that becomes the hall report. There’s so much more buy-in when it’s personalized,” he explains.

So, how can you improve and protect your overall health? Burneka offers some great advice: 

  • First, if you have issues, talk to someone, seek help.
  • Second, see your doctor annually for routine physicals and skin exams. Diagnosing cancer early on means much better survival rates.
  • Third, do everything you can to reduce your exposure to carcinogens, whether that means wearing your mask or using your diesel exhaust system. You’re going to be exposed, so you have to be proactive.
  • Fourth, up your hygiene game while on duty, meaning wash your hands and take a shower as soon as possible, use wipes on the scene, wash your soiled uniforms at the station and not with your family stuff.
  • Lastly, make exercise, nutrition and sleep a priority. Get 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night, eat foods high in fiber and antioxidants, and exercise regularly. This trilogy works together for overall wellness and cancer prevention.

Over the last two decades as a first responder, Burneka has found that a work-life balance is the secret to success, both at home and professionally. Here’s how you can make it happen: 

  1. Know Your Boundaries – “I’ve gotten better over time at saying ‘No.’ That is something that we as firefighters and union people have a hard time doing. We usually just get things done. I’ve gotten better at letting go, trusting people and delegating. I ask myself, ‘What am I realistically able to do right now?’”
  2. Obtain Permission – “If it’s something significant that’s going to keep you away from your family for a length of time, you need to discuss it with your spouse. If you have their blessing to move forward, then it’s so much easier and doesn’t cause strife.
  3. Prioritize – “This whole work-life balance and boundary stuff, it all comes down to prioritizing. For me, family has to come first. I want to be able to attend my kids’ games and be there for birthdays and holidays, but at the same time, I still have a business and need to bring money in so that later on we can go on vacation, that kind of thing. It’s all just a balance.
  4. Self-Care – “A lot of us don’t even know what that is, but it’s being able to press the pause button and take care of yourself. Watching a show, going for a walk or grabbing your favourite food. Dr. Donnie Hutchinson talks about cup spillage. If you have too much stuff going on in one area of your life, let’s say my work life is overwhelming and I bring all of that stuff home, that’s going to spill into my home life. And it can work in the reverse too. Self-care helps you make sure that cup isn’t so full to the point it’s going to overflow.”
  5. Put Your Phone Down – “When it’s time for dinner, your phone can be in the other room. Catch up with your spouse, talk about family stuff, give them that time where you’re available. Putting your phone down is a big deal.

For more great tips and wellness advice, check out Burneka’s “The 25 Live” podcast. 

Photo Supplied By Jim Burneka Jr.