DENVER (CBS4) – They risk their lives to save others, but the most dangerous part of a firefighter’s job isn’t the always the flames, it’s the soot left behind.
A nationwide study by the Centers for Disease Control revealed firefighters are at a greater risk of cancer than the general public. The research shows cancer is the leading cause of firefighter line-of-duty deaths in the U.S. and, according to the International Association of Firefighters, the majority of names on the Fallen Firefighter Memorial Wall in Colorado Springs are members who died from occupational cancer.
Sadly, what is causing many to get sick are often the things firefighters rush to protect. Modern homes and buildings are filled with synthetic materials and chemicals, which burn hotter, faster and create a more toxic soot.
“We’re getting covered in this stuff,” Engineer Chris Devine of North Metro Fire Rescue said. “It’s absorbed through our skin and breathing. We have to treat every fire like a hazmat scene.”
Devine is part of North Metro Fire Rescue’s special team dedicated to cancer prevention. The cancer committee — which includes fire chiefs, captains, engineers and administrative staff — meets regularly to research and develop way to minimize exposure to carcinogens on the job. That includes equipment like a diesel fuel exhaust system in each station to keep contaminants out of the firehouse, keeping masks on longer at scenes and decontaminating sooner, and using industrial washing machines to clean dirty gear.
“We’re also starting to do skin checks, we’re doing blood panels,” Devine explained to CBS4’s Kelly Werthmann. “So we’re looking into ways to help keep us safe. For us, it’s not over when the fire is out.”
Cancer risks were not really talked about in firehouses 10 years ago, Devine added. Yet the issue is especially important to NMFR as at least seven of their firefighters are battling cancer today.
Cancer took the life of Firefighter Craig Moilanen in 2015, and a mural in his honor was painted in the firehouse where he last worked.
“We have his picture put up in every firehouse and I couldn’t bring myself to look at it for a long time,” Devine said. “It could’ve been me.”
It was almost NMFR Engineer Mike Dawson.
“I remember my wife used to put her hand on my chest to make sure I was still breathing,” Dawson said tearfully.
In 2008, at age 39, Dawson was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors found tumors behind his heart and lungs, but all he was worried about was his wife and kids.
“The worst thing about that was her heart was shattered,” Dawson said.
“How are they going to do good in school worrying about me?” he thought.
Dawson said he had a feeling what caused his cancer, but he asked his doctor anyway.
“And he was like, ‘Without a doubt in my mind, this came from your job,’” Dawson said.
The job Dawson poured his heart into was killing him. He said there were nights he would go to sleep not sure if he’d wake up the next day. Even still, he told his family he wouldn’t let that happen.
“I am not going to be the guy who dies from cancer,” Dawson said. “Not yet. I have a gift and an opportunity to help people.”
With the help of his fellow firefighters and months of chemotherapy, Dawson is now in remission. He is back on the job he’s loved for 14 years and said no danger will stand in his way.
“The feeling I get from doing this job, it beats anything. Even the fear from dying of cancer,” he said.
Earlier this year, Colorado lawmakers unanimously passed a bill to protect firefighters diagnosed with cancer. It changed worker’s compensation law to presume that cancer is job related, within a certain time frame. Yet Dawson and Devine agreed, much more work is still needed to fight this epidemic.
Kelly Werthmann joined the CBS4 team as the morning reporter in 2012. After serving as weekend morning anchor, Kelly is now Covering Colorado First for CBS4 News at 10. Connect with Kelly on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @KellyCBS4.