ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Orange County is spending more than $2 million and using federal grant money for changes to firefighters' daily routine in hopes of reducing their chances of developing cancer.
Research shows firefighters nationwide are dying from cancer caused by toxic chemicals encountered while on the job.
"The numbers don't even tell the story, because generally, firefighters are younger and in better health, so they shouldn't be as susceptible to the disease," Orange County Fire Rescue Chief Otto Drozd said.
Almost every Orange County firefighter knows a firefighter who has been diagnosed with cancer.
"Since I've been here, we've lost three firefighters way too early," Drozd said. "One was age 26 and the others were 43 years old."
Many firefighters fear being diagnosed with cancer.
"It's a concern of all of ours -- that our health is definitely in jeopardy every time we're in a contaminated environment or just pulling into the bay," firefighter Ben Deniston said.
Their gear is exposed to chemicals both while fighting fires and in a fire station's garage.
Diesel fumes billow from fire engines' mufflers, exposing nearby fire gear to carcinogens.
"When they still have the gear on, it's being absorbed through the skin," Drozd said. "It's off-gassing off of their uniforms, off of their gear, and it's being inhaled."
When Orange County firefighters pull up into a station's garage, they will now be required to hook up hoses to a fire truck's exhaust pipes, transferring the fumes out of the garage.
Hoods can absorb smoke, exposing firefighters' skin to chemicals, so firefighters will now exchange hoods after every fire and use wipes to clean their skin, which can cut their exposure to dangerous chemicals in half.
"So they have to turn in a dirty hood and get a clean one before they're allowed to leave," Drozd said.
The county bought a second set of gear for every firefighter and installed exhaust-removing systems to pull toxic fumes out of stations.
"They put their gear in the back of the car, and now they're impacting their families," Drozd said.
Firefighters are also now asked to shower within an hour of returning from a fire and to use fire wipes to clean up.
"Just the fact of wiping down after the fire removes about 55 percent of the exposure," Drozd said.
OCFR said it hopes these changes put firefighters' minds at ease so they can focus on serving others.
"This is something (through which) I get to help the community, and it's definitely a job that I'm fulfilled in," Deniston said. "And I'm really good at it."
The agency said it is adding an ultrasound component to firefighters' annual physicals.
All Florida firefighters will also receive training on cancer prevention.
Cox Media Group