De Pere Fire and Rescue take steps to prevent occupational cancer

DE PERE, Wis. (WBAY) -- Firefighters across the nation are taking matters into their own hands when it comes to preventing cancer.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), firefighters have a 9% higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14% higher risk of dying from cancer than the general U.S. population.

“We look at line of duty deaths, the reason why firefighters who are working would die, and of the line of duty deaths we analyze each year, 60 percent are related to cancer,” said Chief Alan Matzke, De Pere Fire and Rescue.

Matzke said the department is coming up on the 10-year-anniversary of losing 32-year-old Adam Van Rite to occupational cancer.

“Never smoked a day in his life,” said Matzke. “It is very important to us here. We have had several diagnosed with cancer and went through treatment so really trying to raise awareness.”

Every year, fire stations across the nation take part in what’s called the ‘firefighter safety stand down’ where the departments pick and issue and focus on ways to fix it. This year’s topic is occupational cancer prevention.

When an emergent call comes in for De Pere Fire and Rescue, Matzke said not much has changed in terms of response.

“We are still putting water on fire, I mean that part is really basic,” said Matzke.

But what has changed is the way homes are built. Matzke said back in the day, a lot of homes were built of wood and natural fibers. Today, he said homes are built using, “manufactured products that are a petroleum based, so the plastics, nylon and poly.”

Although durable for homeowners, Matzke said when it burns, it burns fast and releases toxins.

“So today we have almost the same loss of life in fires. It’s not the fire that kills you, it’s the smoke. It builds faster and is more toxic,” said Matzke.

While they can’t change the building process, Matzke said they can change how they respond to a house fire and it starts with a culture change.

“It was a badge of honor to have your jacket the grittier the better. If you had your helmet that was black and burned it was a badge of honor that you had been in the battle. That type of culture has lived on for 150 years. So we're really trying to change that culture. We want our firefighters to have a 20, 30 year career,” said Matzke.

This week, Chief Matzke is reminding his crews to take every precaution possible while responding to an emergency call.

Matzke said they now use ‘Class A’ foam while fighting fires to seal off debris.

“We are reducing the amount of gas coming off of the debris and subjecting ourselves to less risk,” said Matzke.

Firefighters are now expected to wear their oxygen masks the entire time they are on scene of a fire.

“We say if you can taste the smoke, it’s too late, you are already ingesting it so we encourage staff to wear the breathing apparatus much longer,” said Matzke. “So they need to wear it not just until the fire is out, but until we are done with investigation.”

They also have pre-made kits in each fire truck that is used to wash each other off before getting back into the trucks.

“Make sure we are getting as much debris off as we can,” said Matzke. They also make sure to scrub the equipment as well.

Once back at the station, the clothing is washed and firefighters are expected to shower within the hour.

“Ultimately we want people to come to work, serve the community and go on and live a happy healthy life with their family and not be burdened by occupational cancer,” said Matzke.

It’s a new routine, but one that firefighter/paramedic Joe Young is embracing.

“We haven't been protecting ourselves the way we should be,” said Young.

Young’s father also worked for De Pere Fire Rescue, but he said he never talked about the dangers of cancer.

“Obviously you hear stories about fires and camaraderie around station, the inherent danger, but cancer, no, that’s not a danger ever talked about,” said Young. “Even when I was in school, it wasn’t on the forefront.”

Young believes if firefighters knew what they know now about cancer, things would have changed a long time ago.

“I try to be healthy and fit for this job, but if I am not taking care of myself when I am here, then I am not going to have anything to look forward to when it’s done,” said Young.

Chief Matske hopes the changes the department is implementing now, will be like second-nature for the next generation of firefighters.

De Pere Fire and Rescue Intern Seth Loberger said cancer isn’t something he thinks about at the age of 19, but he appreciates the efforts being taken now.

“I don’t think it affects my decision (to become a firefighter) but it makes me more cautious about the procedures I take and following the guidelines to stay safe,” said Loberger. “It can be dangerous enough as it is.”