Alongside the risk of death or injury in an accident, there’s another occupational hazard for firefighters that unfolds over years and decades: cancer. 

Firefighters are 9% more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than the general population and 14% more likely to die from it. Troubling statistics like that motivated DetecTogether, a non-profit education and advocacy organization, to figure out how to carry their messages around the importance of early detection to fire departments. 

The first step took place five years ago when an email was sent to 12 fire departments to gauge their interest in collaborating on cancer awareness efforts. When eight of them responded within an hour, DetecTogether set off on a new mission. Since then it has worked with fire departments across the country, from the largest (the Fire Department of New York) to ones with only a handful of members, on educational efforts. 

DetecTogether now enlists a celebrity — especially well-known in firefighter circles — to carry the message around the importance of early cancer detection. Jason Patton, a career firefighter and paramedic as well as creator of the Fire Department Chronicles, is the star of three 90-second videos. 

When Patton drops in on firefighters — falling through the ceiling or bursting through a wall — he comes to deliver some facts and blunt talk, with characteristic firehouse humor. That lingering cough or recent fatigue, Patton’s character explains, needs to be checked out. All the spots conclude with the message, “Just like a fire, response time to cancer matters.” 

The campaign had an eight-week test launch in the Boston market and the results have been more than promising. Traffic to the DetecTogether has already increased some 50% thanks to organic growth as fire departments learn about the videos and the campaign broadly. In January, DetecTogether will unroll the campaign nationally. 

DetecTogether partnered with creative agency Cactus on the effort. 

Andy Bartosch, associate creative director at Cactus, says keeping humor at the center of the project was the key to its success. 

“The firefighter audience has a great sense of humor and lots of jokes — lots of inside jokes,” he says. “Through the research that the agency did, we found that it is a main mode of communication but also a kind of coping mechanism for all of the risks of the job. This humor is really kind of their language.” 

The humorous packaging delivers a message of hope, which is one that Tricia Scannell Laursen, president of DetecTogether, says resonates with firefighters during the group’s work with them. 

She describes firefighters’ reaction at one educational event as quintessential to the campaign’s messaging. 

“We started showing them the differences in survival rates between cancers detected early and late and some would take pictures of it on their phones,” she describes. “It gave them hope and they became receptive to our training. They still don’t love to talk about it, which is why in the campaign we use humor and we use their style of communication.”

The campaign also encourages communication via wallet-sized “Dear Physician” cards with talking points to raise with one’s doctor and kits of materials to use around firehouses, from coffee mugs to educational materials.

Bartosch sees the coffee mug as an essential tool in encouraging “organic conversations” while the bathroom educational materials tap into the broader campaign’s vein of firehouse camaraderie. A sign intended to be hung above a urinal, for example, encourages the person reading it to grab himself “by the balls.” 

“We wanted firefighters to talk to each other about this poster,” he says. “That’s really what the goal was—getting them to talk in a natural way about cancer.”

Laursen also points to the kits of educational materials as one of the distinguishing features of the campaign, describing another bathroom sign consisting of a large red arrow pointing down, intended to be placed above a toilet, with the caption “look at your poop.”

“There’s some funny stuff in there that, again, plays on the firefighter humor,” she says, “but we’re seeing photos of these go up in departments and that’s great.”

Laursen brings the conversation back to the campaign’s most important messages — the ones sometimes delivered in poop jokes — as she describes what she hopes firefighters will take from the Response Times Matter campaign.

“Healthcare begins with their awareness and their actions; early detection starts with them,” she says. “If they can use that information and get timely care, they can play an important role in saving their own lives and being there for their family — and their retirement.”