Bristol firefighters take to the stairs in memory of fallen chief


The diagnosis was shocking, and the cancer was quick.

Within five months, former Bristol Fire and Rescue Battalion Chief Fred Serbst Jr., succumbed to Stage IV lung cancer at the age of 67.

"There was only one way to treat my dad's cancer, and it didn't work," said his daughter Cortney Lancaster.

In November 2012, Mr. Serbst sought medical treatment for shoulder pain. He had just retired as Public Works Director and was having rotator cuff issues, said Ms. Lancaster. An MRI of his shoulder revealed a tumor in his lung. Unbeknownst to doctors, the cancer had already spread to his arm.

He started radiation, which helped with the pain.

"My dad did well on that and it reduced the size of the tumor," Ms. Lancaster said.

But then he started chemotherapy in January 2013. That's when doctors discovered that a second tumor had manifested in his back.

"It was quick and progressive," she said. Mr. Serbst died April 7.

In his memory, a group of Bristol firefighters and rescue personnel are participating in the American Lung Association's sixth annual Fight for Air Climb in Providence Feb. 22. Climbers, including teams of firefighters, will tackle 22 floors inside the Omni Providence Hotel to raise money in the fight against lung disease. The Bristol team will be wearing their firefighting gear — about 40 additional pounds — while climbing.

"Back in the day, he was one of my instructors, a very knowledgable chief," said Scott Illingworth, a Bristol firefighter and team captain for the event. "

Mr. Serbst joined the Bristol Volunteer Fire Department in 1964. He served the department in many different roles during his tenure. He even became the Bristol Fire Department’s first full-time training and safety officer, holding the rank of battalion chief for 13 years.

"I joined the department because of him," said Ms. Lancaster, who became an EMT in 2001. "I would always see how he helped people, and I wanted to do that."

Doctors had told Ms. Lancaster that despite her dad quitting smoking 12 years before, it was most likely the cause of the cancer.

"There's some formula that they can predict from when you stopped smoking to when you're likely to develop it," she said.

"Now, whenever I see someone smoking, I yell at them."

Lung cancer is most often diagnosed in its late stages and carries a five-year survival rate of just 16-percent, according to the American Lung Association. Recent studies have shown that low-dose CT screening for high risk individuals can reduce mortality by up to 20-percent. The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) has recommended that high risk individuals be screened for lung cancer each year.

Including Mr. Illingworth, there are currently six members on the Climb team: Dani Boutin, Adam Medeiros, John Quinn, Donald Van Voast and Vina Veira.

The team's goal is to raise more than $2,500.


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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.