PALM COAST – Running into burning buildings is not the biggest killer of America’s firefighters – it’s the cancer they get from doing their job.
Firefighters face a 9 percent higher rate of cancer diagnoses and 14 percent more in cancer-related deaths compared to the general population in the United States.
That sobering statistic has a name and face in the Palm Coast Fire Department. In 2014, Lt. Richard Cline was diagnosed with Papillary Thyroid Cancer. He had his thyroid gland surgically removed, taking the cancer out and saving his life.
Fast forward to earlier this month – on March 7 – when Lt. Cline proudly placed his boots on display at the Florida State Capitol to commemorate five years of being cancer free. He was one of many firefighters who journeyed to Tallahassee to participate in the event.
In all, 500 pairs of firefighter boots lined the steps to raise awareness on firefighter occupational cancer, honoring those who died, those battling it, and those who survived.
The commemoration was concurrent to start of the 2019 Florida Legislative session where legislation has been proposed to provide workers compensation benefits to firefighters who are diagnosed with cancer. Florida is one of six states without such laws in place.
“Cancer rates in our firefighters are absolutely alarming, and doing nothing is not an option,” Florida Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis said in an announcement.
Across the country, there have been increased reports of occupational cancer in firefighters. Because of this, fire departments are working together to stop cancer before it starts.
The Palm Coast Fire Department has implemented several new policies and procedures to limit firefighter cancer exposure – becoming a leader regionally in efforts to reduce cancer exposure risks.
While at the State Capitol, Palm Coast firefighters were able to share their prevention practices with Patronis, Sen. Travis Hutson and Rep. Paul Renner.
“Firefighters may not be able to avoid smoke, but they can limit exposure to carcinogens,” said Palm Coast Fire Chief Jerry Forte.
Palm Coast firefighters received cancer exposure decontamination kits from the State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine last year.
Each decontamination kit includes a 5-gallon bucket, detergent, a scrub brush, a hose and a spray bottle to help first responders wash soot from their gear.
In addition, firefighters have adopted a Hood Exchange Program, which involves having backup sets of firefighter gear and embracing a clean-cab concept to keep contaminated firefighter gear and equipment away from firefighters and out of the cab of the fire engine.
“We take the concept of cancer prevention serious,” Forte said. “Our next fire engine scheduled to be delivered this year will embrace the clean cab concept.”
Lastly, firefighters undergo annual health screenings and full-body ultra-scans for early detection of diseases.
“Our firefighters have invested their lives for our community,” said Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland. “It’s important for our community to invest in our firefighters by supporting their efforts in making health and wellness a priority.”