MANATEE COUNTY, FL (WWSB) - Firefighters put their lives on the line around the clock to protect families. Surprisingly, it’s not always the direct flames that injure or kill the first responders. Firefighters may not learn about the true dangers associated with their battles for years.
“There’s a lot of risks up until death. You accept that,” said Dwayne McKeaver, First Class Firefighter for Southern Manatee Fire Rescue.
McKeaver has battled a lot more than just flames and smoke during his 15 years as a Southern Manatee firefighter. He entered the fight for his life in 2017, when he was diagnosed twice with melanoma, and most recently, colon cancer.
“I think it’s been given to me for a reason to educate other people and work throughout the state to educate the other firefighters,” explained McKeaver.
McKeaver said he never learned about the industry’s strong link to cancer during his training, even though data from the International Association of Firefighters reveals 70% of line-of-duty deaths in 2016 were cancer-related.
“These firefighters are standing ready to deal with the worst case scenario that could potentially challenge their lives,” said State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis.
Patronis, who is also Florida’s Chief Financial Officer, is pushing for lawmakers to approve a cancer-benefit bill during the legislative session. If passed, the measure would let firefighters battling cancer opt-in to a plan that would help pay for their health care deductibles and bills while recovering from surgery or treatment.
A study by the C.D.C. found firefighters are 14% more likely to die from cancer compared to the rest of the U.S. That could be because of their prolonged exposure to carcinogens.
“When you’re in a structure fire, lots of things are off-gassing, different plastics, different synthetics. It’s contaminants that stay on our skin and gear and maybe areas that would be exposed before and after the fires,” said McKeaver.
One step to preventing exposure to carcinogens is by going through the decon, or decontamination, process, immediately after responding to a call.
Florida fire crews are now relying on the 4,000 decontamination kits sent to stations in 2018 which are filled with soap, baby wipes, brushes, hoses, and more.
Even after the initial decontamination, the toxins can still stick to their clothing and potentially, make way into their homes.
McKeaver said the state is moving in the right direction, but believes the best way to save lives is through education.
“We’re just now trying to teach more and more to the recruits coming in, in regards to keeping yourself clean and deconing yourself after fires,” said McKeaver.