With cancer as leading cause of death for firefighters, new hazmat procedures aim to save lives

LONE TREE, Colo. -- When you think of firefighters working on a fire, you probably picture ash-covered uniforms with black soot caked on their faces.

Fighting fires is a dirty job, and it’s dangerous too.

“Really what we were worried about was building collapses, roofs coming down on us,” South Metro Fire Rescue Operations Chief Troy Jackson said.

Now, though, their perspective on safety is changing. Not only will they include the short-term risks, but also the long-term ones too.

“We never really thought about cancer. It was an afterthought,” Jackson said.

Cancer is the leading cause of death for firefighters in the line of duty.

They are 9 percent more likely to be diagnosed with cancer. But when it comes to certain specific types of cancer, the statistics are shocking.

According to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, firefighters have a 100 percent increased risk of getting mesothelioma and testicular cancer.

“Today’s homes are manufactured with lumber that’s held together with glues and resins and when you heat that they release toxic chemicals,” Jackson said. “And that stuff attaches to our clothes.”

The toxic soot is then taken back to the fire house on boots, helmets and other equipment where firefighters are at risk of breathing in the particles.

“We’re definitely seeing increased diagnosis of cancer among our people. Recently we had our first cancer-related death with Mike Freeman,” Jackson said.

“Mike’s death had a big impact on me because it was like I was looking into my future.”

In 2013, Troy Jackson was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in his airways. Doctors had to remove 3 inches of his trachea where they found the first tumor.

“They don’t have a cure,” he said. “Eventually, I’ll die from this cancer.”

So, along with his department, Jackson is on a mission to change the culture of firefighting from a “dirty job” to an extremely clean job.

“I don’t want to have to see others go through what I’ve gone through,” he said.

All engines will be equipped with decontamination buckets. Crews will have access to rubber gloves, face masks, soap, specialized cleaning wipes, trash bags and scrub brushes.

“We’ll actually treat a structure fire more like a hazmat call so our firefighters will actually go through a decontamination process at the fire scene,” Jackson said.

All firefighters have also been issued two sets of gear so they always have one that is clean and free from toxic chemicals.

“Traditionally, firefighters have kind of worn their dirty gear to show that they’re seasoned, that they have experience, that they’ve been on fires. We’re trying to say that’s no longer acceptable,” he said.

South Metro Fire Rescue will begin training on the new protocols at the end of February. The decontamination procedures will become standard practice in April.

Jackson said the changes will not affect response time to fire emergencies.

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