New initiative to protect firefighters from on-the-job cancer

Published: December 3, 2021 9:08 AM EST
Updated: December 3, 2021 9:11 AM EST

Firefighters know they will live alongside grave danger when they sign up for the job, but it is not just the fire that could hurt them: One in three firefighters gets cancer in the line of duty, and there’s a new initiative to help preserve the wellbeing of those who work to preserve ours.

Carcinogenic chemicals, both from the fires themselves and in some cases from the foam used to put the fires out, contribute to the frightening number of firefighters who get cancer. The American Cancer Society and the International Association of Firefighters have teamed up to throw a lot of money and effort at preventing and treating cancer in firefighters. They are funding new research and advocacy as well as support hotlines for sick firefighters, transportation to chemotherapy and comfortable places to stay once the treatment starts.

Education is a huge part of the program, which means a lot to Heather Mazurkiewicz, a firefighter in the North Collier Fire Control and Rescue District. She gets choked up talking about it and thinking of her visit to the Florida Fallen Firefighter Memorial in Ocala, where she paid her respects to two fellow firefighters who were killed by cancer.

“I have to believe that education resources like this could have helped save their lives if they would have known that resources like this existed,” Mazurkiewicz said. “If we would have known that the environments that we’re walking into as firefighters are toxic soups… we didn’t talk about cancer in the fire service. We didn’t recognize that this was an issue.”

Folks familiar with the firefighting world will tell you it used to be thought of as pretty cool to come back to the station with dirty gear. It meant you were tough, a seasoned firefighter. That culture has really changed now that dirty gear is known to often be dirty with chemicals laden with carcinogens.

David Perez is one North Collier firefighter who is currently battling cancer.

“You know, I like to talk to my guys about it all the time,” Perez said. “Let them know that this is real… I always thought I was the one who was never going to get cancer… healthy, young, active, always watched what I ate, always did the right things. I never in my life would have ever thought that I would have been someone who was diagnosed with cancer, ever. It’s a huge surprise.”

Occupational cancer has surpassed cardiac events as the leading cause of death for firefighters and emergency medical service personnel, meaning this issue has gotten worse, not better, but this joint initiative could turn that trend around.