Instead of flowers, Spencer Conrad’s family asked that people honor him by donating to the Minnesota Fire Initiative (MnFire).
Former Eden Prairie Fire Chief George Esbensen and several of his firefighting colleagues formed the statewide advocacy organization in 2016.
The 501 (c)(3) non-profit MnFire provides firefighters with the tools, training, and support they need to prioritize and protect their health from cancer, emotional trauma, and cardiac disease.
According to MnFire, those three are affecting firefighters at rates about double those of the general population.
Through its efforts, MnFire aims to reverse those trends. Esbensen serves as president of the MnFire board.
“I wake up thinking of all the colleagues I visited in the hospital or gone to their funerals who have died of one of those three things,” Esbensen said. “Very few firefighters fall off roofs or go through basement floors anymore. The fire services got a lot smarter and more risk-aware of the hazards of the job.
“But the big killers are cancer, cardiac, and emotional trauma, and Spence, unfortunately, had his name added to that list,” he continued. “It’s something that needs to change.”
Esbensen said firefighters are at increased risk for B-cell lymphoma, which is the type of cancer Conrad had.
Conrad, 63, the Eden Prairie volunteer fire chief from 1990-2002, died May 21.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that his career in the fire service cut his life short as we’ve seen way too often,” he said. “That’s why the Minnesota Firefighter Initiative was born five years ago, to change the paradigm and the chaos in the Minnesota fire service.”
Esbensen, who retired as Eden Prairie fire chief in 2018, said the job of a firefighter is stressful. Currently, he works as an outreach liaison with Hennepin Healthcare’s trauma center.
“Answering the bell multiple times a week during the whole career has been proven to harden your arteries and contribute to cardiac issues,” he said.
And, he said, going to “everybody else’s worse day year after year for decades” takes an emotional toll.
“The fire service had a culture and, in some cases still does, of not providing resources necessary to help people navigate the chaos,” he said.
For more information on MnFire, call 763-221-9329 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.