Keeping firefighters safe while they keep us safe

Tucson area groups are working to keep firefighters safe.
Published: Jan. 10, 2023 at 3:08 PM MST|Updated: Jan. 10, 2023 at 5:04 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - January is firefighter cancer prevention month.

In southern Arizona, there are just over 1,800 first responders equipped to help keep us safe in cases of emergency.

But the big question is, who is keeping our heroes safe and protected from the hazards that cause cancer?

According to Mike McKendrick, Chairman of The Greater Tucson Fire Foundation, early detection and prevention training are key to making sure firefighters stay safe from cancer-causing hazards.

“Cancer is such an insidious disease and it kills more firefighters than anyone else,” McKendrick said. “It’s long term, and firefighters suffer.”

According to the CDC, firefighters have a 9% higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer than the average American. Firefighters are also at a 14% higher risk of dying from some form of cancer than anyone else.

Robert Corbell, the Health and Safety Division Chief with Northwest Fire District, said that is why the mission to keep fighters healthy, well, and away from cancer all starts during training.

During this time, firefighters are made aware of the dangers brought on by the job and the increased risk of cancer associated with running into the flames.

“It’s a great feeling knowing that you are helping somebody,” Corbell said. “However, we know, and we have known for quite some time that we will develop a form of cancer, at least some of us will.

“We make sure we have our gear cleaned all the time.”

Before a firefighter can be relieved from duty, they must go through a total scrub down, using water, a brush, and soap to wash away any hazards left behind.

In addition, Chief Corbell said during every fire, their firefighters always keep their SCBA or Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus on at all times.

They also switch out a special scarf used by first responders.

“We found that our pours expand quite a bit, so we actually absorb a lot of chemicals through our neck area and our face and hands,” Corbell said. “When they come out of the fire for rehab, we switch out their hoods that they use to protect their ears and face.”

Those chemicals on top of other unknowns are why organizations like The Greater Tucson Fire Foundation said prevention and screening are important.

This is another reason why they help provide funding to 90% of agencies in the area who want to participate in cancer screenings.

At this time, they use the “OneTest for Cancer”, but now the foundation is tapping into new technology to protect those responding to fires.

“It largely uses artificial intelligence to catch cancer in the early stages and identify where they are in the body,” McKendrick says.

The Galleri Test as it is called gives a small light at the end of the tunnel to those who don’t think twice about saving a life.

“We are all familiar with the dangers of running into a burning building when everyone is running out. There are the dangers of carcinogens with modern-day construction,” McKendrick says. “There are dangers of cancer from those things that we thought were beneficial to us as firefighters”

If you were wondering how you can help firefighters in the Old Pueblo, McKendrick said you can donate items to Safe Shift, Estate Sale Thrift Store. Funds collected will go to helping first responders throughout southern Arizona.