Sharyle Patton Receives Coveted White Helmet Award

May 1, 2019

by Michael Lerner, Commonweal President

When my wife Sharyle was five years old, living with her family in Buena Vista, Colorado, she and her older brother Jake set their house on fire. Jake thought it would be fun to scare their friends by putting a lit candle in a paper mache jack o’lantern and placing it in the clothes closet. They forgot about it until Sharyle suggested they go back and take a look. That’s when they discovered the closet was on fire! Jake called the fire department and got buckets of water. Sharyle checked on the cats and then ran to collect her dolls. About half the house burned down. Fortunately, Sharyle’s parents ran the local lumberyard and hardware store. Friends gave them a place to stay while they rebuilt. 

Many years later, Sharyle and I were married and living in a house at the entrance to the Commonweal Garden. One day, while we were out of Bolinas, a car’s catalytic converter ignited a grass fire a mile away. It rapidly spread through the dry grass and came very close to burning down our house and threatening the Commonweal Garden. The Bolinas Volunteer Fire Department stopped the fire just across the road from our house, saving it and the Garden. We both have a deep appreciation for the extraordinary commitment of firefighters.

On March 23, Sharyle was one of five people honored for giving back to the firefighter community. For her invaluable work on behalf of firefighters’ health and safety, she received a cherished white helmet from the San Francisco Fire Department Cancer Prevention Foundation at a gathering of 600 firefighters and their family and friends.

The helmet was presented by Tony Stefani, founder of the Foundation, in a moving ceremony featuring a Scottish kilted bagpipe and drum marching band and an honor guard carrying the American and California flags. There was scarcely a dry eye in the house. In a letter to Sharyle and the other awardees, Tony wrote, “The white helmet in the firefighting profession signifies the highest level of achievement. Without your level of commitment and dedication we would not have made the progress to create the level of awareness that currently exists throughout the entire firefighting profession.”

Sharyle directs the Commonweal Biomonitoring Resource Center. She was honored for her work protecting firefighters from toxic chemical exposures. Also honored was her research partner Rachel Morello Frosch, professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at University of California, Berkeley. Sharyle and Rachel co-founded the Women Firefighters Biomonitoring Collaborative with United Fire Service Women; Silent Spring Institute; University of California, San Francisco; Breast Cancer Prevention Partners; and Commonweal. For the past two years, Sharyle has focused on firefighter exposures from the major Northern California wildland/urban interface fires. She has also focused on toxic chemicals in firefighter gear and firefighter foam. For six years, Sharyle has also conducted dust analyses of fire stations across the United States and Canada in collaboration with the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).

It was a deeply moving event. Sharyle was completely blown away. I was pretty blown away myself. After the ceremony, dozens of firefighters, past and present, came up to Sharyle to thank her for her work and to congratulate her. It honestly felt like an initiation ceremony—welcoming Sharyle into the brotherhood and sisterhood of the most diverse fire department in the country.

Firefighters are among the most respected professionals in the United States. Their voices have deep impact in state capitals and in Washington, DC. They lose more members to cancer than to any other cause. Their rates for many cancers are significantly higher than those of the general public, which was a great surprise to researchers, because firefighters’ general fitness and lifestyle are better than the norm.

Sharyle, a citizen scientist, has become the go-to resource not only for the San Francisco Fire Department but also for the IAFF, where she works closely with the IAFF Department of Health and Safety. She has played a central role in proposing, designing, and implementing ten studies with the San Francisco Fire Department and the IAFF.

Many Commonweal staff and program directors do not seek credit for their work. Few have been more assiduous at deflecting credit to others than Sharyle. I don’t write much about Sharyle because, as her husband of 35 years, I might be suspected of a certain bias. But this time, I had to write this acknowledgement.

I asked her last night if I could call her “Chief.”

“Maybe once in a while,” she said.

Hail to the Chief.

Photo: David Briggs