GOODYEAR, ARIZ. – While the coronavirus has been at the forefront of health news over the past year, fire departments nationwide face another crisis in rising cancer rates. Research has found smoke, ash, and other chemicals firefighters commonly come in contact with are very carcinogenic, which can lead to cancer down the road.
To address this issue, some stations are coming up with unique ways to keep their crews safe.
After losing one of their own last year to cancer, the Goodyear Fire Department in Arizona wanted to do something to help prevent future cases. Several of their firefighters have been diagnosed with cancer, including 40-year-old Gilbert Aguirre who’s been battling leukemia.
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“You never consider yourself a statistic until you’re one, and me being a firefighter that’s been diagnosed with cancer I mean it hits you home,” Aguirre, an engineer/paramedic with the Goodyear Fire Department, told Fox News.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) firefighters have a 9% higher risk of developing cancer compared to the general population. They also have a 14% higher risk of dying from it. The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) said those cancers ultimately caused 66% of career firefighter line-of-duty deaths from 2002 to 2019.
“It’s those hidden threats that now are becoming more apparent, both mental health and cancer being one of the two of the biggest issues we deal with,” Goodyear Fire Captain Manny Cordova, said.
Fire departments, like Goodyear, are now reacting. They’re unveiling a brand new station completely outfitted with different devices aimed at preventing cancer cases.
“The way it was laid out, we have a side of the station that we would consider a dirty side, where after a fire we come back…we can start the [decontamination] process there and then move towards the clean part of the station,” Cordova said.
The firefighters spent months researching, attending firefighting conferences, and speaking with architects to come up with the final design.
Some of the new technologies include a hose hooked up to the firetruck exhaust, so they aren’t breathing in fumes. All the doors in the station automatically close with an air pressure system to push out toxins. High-powered washing machines deep clean potentially carcinogenic materials off gear and each section of the station is colored coded to show which areas are high risk. The storage room is labeled green meaning it’s a low risk whereas the decontamination area is marked red for high risk.
“We wanted to change the way we were doing things, and how we can prevent firefighters, especially at a young age, getting an occupational cancer,” Aguirre said. “We don’t want other families, other firefighters to go through the same thing that we’ve gone through or that our families have gone through.”
The fire department has also taken lighting and paint colors into consideration. Several big, bright windows throughout the facility with light wall colors help with mental health they said, and a brand new gym helps their physical health. The Goodyear Fire Department will be opening a second station just like this one in a couple of months.
“It’s real, it’s affected us, just like other fire departments across the valley and it’s important to invest in our members and our city is spearheading that charge for us,” Cordova said.
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Other organizations are also stepping in to help. The Vincere Cancer Center in Scottsdale started offering free cancer screenings to firefighters in Nov. 2018. They use cutting edge technology to test them earlier and more aggressively.
“When I started the program in 2018, it was a pilot project, so I just started it for free and I got some grants to do it and then as we started to do more and more, cities realized it was cost-effective to actually invest in this,” said Dr. Vershalee Shukla, Vincere Cancer Center Director of Oncology.
“The City of Phoenix covers all of the cancer screenings for the firefighters for all the Phoenix firefighters. We work with different cities such as Superstition and Tempe which are covered through FEMA grants…more and more people are realizing that this is important and necessary, and they’re finding ways to fund it,” Shukla told Fox News.
The group diagnosed 22 firefighters with cancer in 2019 and another 30 last year.
“We’re seeing a variety of cancers so breast cancers, prostate cancers, and melanomas so cancers that we see in regular people, but we’re seeing them at a much younger age,” Shukla said.
Shukla says it’s crucial these firefighters get tested early on, as most start their firefighting careers at a young age, meaning they’re being exposed to these carcinogens earlier, and are unfortunately developing cancers younger.
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“It’s very worrisome and I think having a program like this has provided a lot of relief because at least they know they’re being taken care of and being watched,” Shukla said.
Along with normal X-rays and scans, she’s also using brand new technologies. One of those is a Quantitative Transmission (QT) ultrasound, which is changing the way mammograms are done.
“We are one of three in the country and so the benefit of this ultrasound is it images the breast using water and transmission ultrasound and so it’s safer to do where there’s no radiation, it’s not painful there’s no compression,” Shukla said.
Catching the cancers early will help prevent firefighter deaths. The Goodyear Fire Department said they hope their initiative will inspire others across the country.