GREENWOOD VILLAGE, Colo. (CBS4) – Colorado’s first responders face dangers every day, even those they cannot see. For firefighters, one of the greatest hidden dangers they face is cancer.
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 United States. That increased risk comes from the soot and toxic chemicals firefighters come in contact with on a daily basis.
It is why fire agencies around Colorado are creating new protocols to reduce exposure to cancer-causing materials.
CBS4’s Kelly Werthmann has reported on the changes, including requirements for firefighters to wear masks longer at scenes to special tubes inside the fire station bays to keep exhaust fumes out of the firehouse. This month, South Metro Fire Rescue is rolling out additional protocols to not only protect themselves, but the people they protect.
“We’re putting one of these buckets on all of our rigs,” Operations Chief Troy Jackson said, pointing to a green bucket.
In a basic green bucket are simple things — scrub brushes, rubber medical gloves, Dawn dish soap, heavy duty garbage bags – yet, the everyday items are perhaps some of the most important tools for South Metro firefighters.
“What we’re trying to do is reduce the amount of carcinogens our folks are bringing home and to the station,” Jackson explained.
After a fire or hazmat scene, firefighters are often covered in soot and other chemicals. The dirty look was once a badge of honor, but it’s now the look of cancer-causing work.
“Those chemicals absorb into our skin, get on our clothes, attach to us,” Jackson told CBS4’s Kelly Werthmann.
That is where the green buckets come in handy. Using the scrub brushes and dish soap, Jackson explained firefighters can wash down their gear at a scene. Then, while wearing rubber gloves and a surgical mask, they’ll transfer the contaminated gear into a heavy duty trash bag to be placed in separate location on the fire truck, away from the cab.
Firefighters also have disposable seat covers to prevent cross contamination on the truck.
“Getting into second gear, keeping our rigs clean helps protect our citizens also because we’re not going into their house on other calls and bringing those contaminants into their homes,” Jackson said.
It may seem like an obvious step to take, but Jackson explained having dirty gear was once part of the firefighter culture.
“When I came into the fire service , we actually slept next to our bunker boots. It was taught to us that dirty, nasty, filthy gear was a badge of courage,” he said. “It showed you were seasoned. We’ve come a long ways from those days.”
Reducing the risk of cancer has special meaning for South Metro Fire Rescue. These new steps come on the heels of the passing of Firefighter Engineer Mike Freeman. He passed away last summer, two months after he was diagnosed with brain cancer. Jackson said one of the hardest days of his career was giving Freeman’s children their father’s helmet and an American flag.
“Probably even harder than that was sitting down and telling my kids that I had cancer,” Jackson said.
In 2013, Jackson was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that has no cure.
“Chemotherapy doesn’t work. I’ve had just about over 70 treatments of radiation,” he said. “They had to remove three inches of my trachea.”
Even still, with a smile on his face, Jackson is fighting against the odds.
“I love my job,” he said. “If you asked if I’d do it all over again, absolutely.”
He wants to make sure no other firefighter has to experience his pain, and he’s confident the basic green bucket will help.
“I think the steps were taking now are just the first steps we’re going to be taking,” he said.
Those new steps will require firefighters to break some old habits, so training is underway for South Metro. A spokesperson told CBS4 they expect the buckets and protocols to go into effect by the end of February.