JEFFERSON COUNTY, FL (WTXL) - According to the CDC, firefighters are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than any other occupation, but unlike 39 other states in the country, firefighters in Florida don't receive any benefits after hearing their diagnosis.
One Florida man is raising awareness about this issue by walking across the state.
"Just walk, something big will happen." Those are the words Tom Hill heard from a friend just before he passed away. That's what Hill is doing. He just started walking, fulfilling a promise.
"There weren't any big plans set in place when I started," says Tom Hill, a retired Orange County Firefighter. "I just felt compelled when Shakey told me 'Ya know, keep your promise to do the best you can.'"
Starting in Key West, Hill walked over 100 miles by himself, carrying a single backpack with shields, patches, and mementos of 87 firefighters who have lost their lives due to job-related illnesses such as cancer.
"Miami-Dade and the City of Miami found me down there and they said they wanted to help me get out the last twenty-four miles. So, two miles in, I turned over that first pack to them," explains Hill.
Hill's walk has since then gained popularity, with fire departments and family members passing along photos and name plates from their loved ones who are battling or have passed from cancer.
Now, with six packs and nearly 900 names, Hill and local firefighters are literally carrying their brothers' burdens, but it is helping the families with the healing process.
"Even though it's hard taking on, when the families are telling their stories, an hour later, they're saying 'this has healed me so much.' It kind of relieves me of that burden," says Hill.
However, in Florida, families of firefighters are still burdened with finances. The state has tried and failed numerous times to pass legislation allowing firefighters to receive benefits after being diagnosed with cancer. Although this walk started as a promise, Hill hopes it will create a change. Until then, the brotherhood remains strong within fire departments.
"This has really brought the brotherhood together, the firehood together," says Derrick Burrus, the Deputy Chief of Jefferson County Fire Rescue. "We realize that we're walking for other people. We're standing for other people, remembering other people.
Hill starts each day remembering with a Guardian Ceremony, and ends each night reading the names and sharing the stories of those he carries with him.
Many people have reached out to tell Hill how grateful they are for him and his efforts. Hill told WTXL that he gets chills knowing how many families are without a loved one and still suffering because of the lack of legislation.
My Brothers' Burden Walk is set to finish on Thursday as Hill and firefighters from around the state, including TFD, walk from Station 6 to the capitol building.
A Facebook event has been created for the final walk and can be found here.
In addition, you can also "like" the My Brothers' Burden Walk Facebook page for many more details about the walk.