Ask a firefighter if he knows someone who has battled, or died, of cancer, and the answer is likely to include coworkers. Lt. Jerry Rostetter with Newton Fire/EMS can easily list former coworkers who have suffered, some who have died — including his own father.
"Usually, when you get to that retirement age is when you see it," Rostetter said. "You can see it before. (Earlier issues) habr not been that prevalent around here. On bigger departments, you will see younger guys. ... There are a lot of guys that have retired here that have gotten cancer."
He can quickly list friends and former co-workers — about half a dozen.
Rostetter has been with the department for 26 years. His retirement is about four years away.
According to firstrespondercenter.org, cancer is the leading cause of firefighter line-of-duty deaths in the United States. According to the International Association of Firefighters, firefighters are diagnosed with cancer at a rate that is more than five times that of the general population.
Firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general U.S. population, according to research by the CDC/National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety.
"There a lot of different cancers that come about," Rostetter said. "We did a lot or research. ... We developed a team and researched what everybody does and how they do it. We looked at what would be good for us.
It is something that Rostetter wanted to do something about. He and Brett Butler started researching not only the problem, but possible prevention procedures that the Newton Fire/EMS department could put into place. After a few months of work, there are some new bags of equipment in each fire truck along with new procedures for firefighters.
Some of it sounds so small — like wiping down equipment and skin with special wipes after finishing up at the scene of a fire. There's also a new pressurized hose to wash down a firefighter and their equipment with water from the truck, and bags to put worn equipment in to try and contain carcinogenic gasses before the equipment can be properly cleaned.
"This has changed the way we do business," said Phillip Beebe, Division Chief for Newton Fire/EMS. "In the past it has been a badge of honor to have a smoky, blackened helmet and your fire gear all grungy with soot and smoke and so forth. That kind of made you look like you had been there, and done that. As it turns out, all that black, sooty, nasty stuff are carcinogens that we hang on to and keep coming in contact with. That is one small part of this."
After a fire, firefighters are now scrubbing each other down and trying to get as much of those cancer causers off of each other. Firefighters are also leaving their airpacks on longer to keep clean air going into their lungs — even after the fire is out.
Rostetter said other issues still to come are adding more gear, finding a way to deal with vehicle emissions and getting toxins out of the body.
"When you go to a fire, you come back, you wipe yourself down but it is still in your system," Rostetter said.