By Kelly Werthmann

(CBS4) – A South Metro firefighter paramedic has died after a battle with occupational cancer. The department says Anthony Palato passed away peacefully Wednesday morning.

Tony, as friends and family called him, served Colorado as a firefighter paramedic for 21 years. His fire service career began with the City of Sheridan then with Cunningham Fire before the department unified with South Metro Fire Rescue.

Anthony Palato

Anthony Palato (credit: South Metro Fire)

“Tony is one of those employees you wish you had 100 of,” Jon Adams, SMFR Assistant Chief of Operations, said. “Just a phenomenal paramedic, a phenomenal caregiver to our citizens. He truly loved every single patient he took care of, regardless of who they were or what their situation was.”

In 2017, Tony was diagnosed with job-related cancer. A few years later, he was in remission, but the cancer tragically returned. He passed away Sept. 15 at the age of 55, leaving behind his wife and two daughters.

“They’re struggling right now comprehending all of this,” Adams told CBS4’s Kelly Werthmann.

Of all the dangers firefighters face, cancer is their greatest hidden risk. It is the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths among firefighters because they are so often exposed to hazardous substances on the job. South Metro knows this heartbreaking fact all too well, and it’s why the department has been implementing new protocols.

(credit: CBS)

“It started with when we had the unfortunate passing of Mike Freeman and Chief Troy Jackson,” Adams explained. “We really took a look at what we’re doing. It’s something we’re trying to solve as a fire service nationwide.”

Among the safety changes, SMFR crews have green bucket kits on board each rig, used to clean firefighters and their gear after a call. It helps reduce exposure to toxic carcinogens and other cancer-causing chemicals.

Now crews will use them with another fallen brother in mind.

“I think it reemphasizes every single day how careful and diligent we need to be and how these environments we’re going into have changed and how it’s dangerous,” Adams said.

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A danger Tony Palato likely knew but did not let keep him from giving his all for as long as he could.

“He poured his heart into his work and he poured his heart into our organization,” Adams said. “We’re really going to miss him.”

Tony’s sacrifice is considered a line-of-duty death. SMFR says he will be remembered as a kind, caring and compassionate person with a true servant’s heart.

Kelly Werthmann