Hastings man Brett "Gonzo" How put out fires for more than 30 years. It was all he ever wanted to do.

But the toxins he was exposed to as part of his job took a fatal toll on his body.

How died in January, 2018, aged 54. His death followed what is believed to be the first case in New Zealand where ACC has treated a firefighter's lung cancer as work-related.

Now How's wife Cherie Flintoff has been given an acknowledgement that his death was also work-related.

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"He absolutely loved his job, the crew and everyone they were all like a family to him," How's wife Cherie Flintoff said.

Firefighter Brett How's wife Cherie Flintoff said that all he wanted to do was help people. Photo / Paul Taylor
Firefighter Brett How's wife Cherie Flintoff said that all he wanted to do was help people. Photo / Paul Taylor

"That was all he wanted to do was help people, there was nothing else he would have done."

Flintoff says she remembers the day the doctor told him he had cancer "as clear as anything".

"He had gone to the doctors to get looked over because he had trouble with his vision, they did tests and everything and we just waited for results.

"A couple of days later Brett had missed a couple of calls from the GP and then next thing the GP was knocking on our door.

"When you get news like that it doesn't take long to see someone go from hero to zero."

How died just eight months later.

While he was alive, Flintoff began to research the cancer, looking at case studies to try to class How's cancer as work-related.

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She talked to How when he was sick about what he wanted her to do to help other firefighters once he died.

"Then after he passed I was going through his locker and found old pamphlets from the 70s and 80s about firefighter's health and the conditions they work in," Flintoff said.

"That was when I realised that I can't bring Brett back. But if I could help, so others could survive, then I would."

She said the work it took to get the information to put a case forward was significant.

Flintoff says she was only able to do it because she had experience working as a government policy advisor.

"I've had experience in doing this kind of thing and know what to say and what to write but for others having to do this is a nightmare and all while your loved ones are suffering makes it harder," Flintoff said.

A few weeks ago, more than a year after his death, she finally received confirmation from ACC that his death was related to the toxic conditions he was exposed to while working as a firefighter.

With it comes compensation, roughly $100,000, covering both funeral and medical costs.

Flintoff has now dedicated her time working to help change the law and amend the ACC legislation for firefighters.

It won't bring How back, but it's something.

"He was just a Hawke's Bay boy through and through, only ever wanting to be a firefighter and help others," Flintoff said.

"That was just the kind of man he was, it was Brett."

Alex Forrest has 27 years of experience as a lawyer and has been helping firefighters worldwide change their country's legislations for 20. Photo / Blair Voorend
Alex Forrest has 27 years of experience as a lawyer and has been helping firefighters worldwide change their country's legislations for 20. Photo / Blair Voorend

Will legislation change?

Canadian firefighter Alex Forrest has worked with over a dozen countries as a health and safety advocate and helped change the legislation to recognise occupational cancers for firefighters in Canada, Australia and all over the European Union.

Forrest said NZ didn't recognise cancers from firefighting as a work-related injury.

"Our plan is to move New Zealand into the same model that is already in place in Australia, Canada and the US for supporting and enabling firefighters to be covered for occupational cancer if they ever get it," Forrest said.

He said the plan was to have everything in place and legislation changed within the next year.

Forrest has been travelling the country meeting with different politicians and government ministers involved in the issue and last Friday met with local National MP Lawrence Yule.

A meta-data study which analysed New Zealand and international research about cancer risks among firefighters, found firefighters had a greater chance of getting cancer compared to the general population.

Firefighters had a 102 per cent greater risk of developing testicular cancer, 28 per cent greater risk of developing prostate cancer and 32 per cent greater risk of developing brain cancer than the rest of the general population.

"With the increased risk of cancer we also need to work on preventing any risk, which means cleaning our gear and ourselves after fighting fires to prevent being exposed to any chemicals."

During Friday's meeting Forrest said he was able to spend some time with Cherie Flintoff and learn more about How.

"Talking to Cherie about Brett was such an amazing thing to hear just about him and his work, but for me it always seems to be the same story about a great person taken to soon, which needs to change," Forrest said.

But Forrest said when it comes to helping firefighters there are no limits to who he helps.

"There really are no borders when it comes to helping your fellow firefighting brothers and sisters."