ON YOUR SIDE: More firefighters facing health risks that could last long after the smoke clears

(Source: WBRC video)
(Source: WBRC video)
Published: Mar. 9, 2017 at 12:49 AM CST|Updated: Mar. 9, 2017 at 1:38 AM CST
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HOOVER, AL (WBRC) - They put themselves in harm's way to protect us. Now firefighters are facing a health threat more and more that lasts could last long after the smoke clears. A recent study finds firefighters are being diagnosed with cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder at alarming rates.

"I was diagnosed April 21 of last year, 2016. I had some problems going on that I wrote off as something else and finally decided to have colonoscopy," Randy Wiggins, a Hoover firefighter said.

Wiggins colonoscopy showed stage 2 colon cancer. That came as somewhat of a surprise to this 44-year-old Hoover fire fighter.

"My grandmother died Easter but she had lung cancer. She was 86 and nobody in my family had any other cancer," Wiggins said.

Wiggins feels his diagnosis could be job related. Wiggins had his last surgery in February and is doing great.  He says he has a great support system at home and on the job.

"It kind of makes you wonder that. No family history or anything like that and with all the materials that are made now .It's a lot worse that what it was 20 years ago," Wiggins added.

House fires now burn faster and hotter than ever. The hidden health hazards that come along with that are burning though fire departments around the country according to a report from the International Association of Fire Fighters that says cancer and PTSD rates among fire fighters are skyrocketing.

Today, things found in your house are made from synthetic materials, plastics, foams and coatings containing carcinogens and toxins. That makes them hundreds of times more toxic when they burn. A recent study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found firefighters have a 14-percent increased risk of dying from cancer compared to the general public.

"Anything that you have in a normal household right now has got to the point where its got so much carcinogens in it that we're about 100 times more likely to develop cancer than we would have in the past," Captain Roby Rigsby, a Hoover firefighter said.

We recently spent a day training with Hoover fire fighters. The department is currently studying ways to better fight these dangerous, toxin filled fires. One method is a transitional attack.

"We're trying to knock it down from the outside. Lower the temperature threshold. So that our people can enter in. By doing that we're also releasing a lot of smoke too and changing the composition of that smoke to a different level," Fire Chief Chuck Wingate said.

To combat the growing health risks, Chief Wingate says after every house fire, firemen are immediately washed off and their turnout gear is cleaned as well. He believes those toxins could lead to serious health problems.

"15 years ago, you wanted the dirtiest gear just because that's what you do. Now today, you think about all the bad stuff is out there, inside the fire. You want to take care of yourself and take care of your family" Wiggins said.

Hoover firefighters go through comprehensive physicals each year which include cancer screenings. We know early detection is key. The department has caught some cancers like prostate early. Because of the toxins these first responders face, Chief Wingate is now looking into recent studies that recommend fire fighters get colonoscopies starting at age 40 instead of 50.

"I can agree. We've had people with colon cancer that been 40..We've had some that have been way over 50..The main thing is we're trying to catch it as early as possible," Wingate said.

If a firefighter is diagnosed with cancer, he or she could be eligible for a number of workers' compensation benefits known as presumptive disability laws. 34 states including Alabama have some form of these laws on the books.

When it comes to the stresses of the job, doctors in Austin, Texas have identified a clear link between traumatic situations experienced by fire fighters and PTSD, similar to what veterans experience when they return from war.

A 2015 Florida State University study found nearly half of fire fighters surveyed have thought about suicide. And nearly 20-percent had made suicide attempts. That study found those with PTSD are 6 times more likely to attempt suicide.

"You aren't going to find a fire fighter that hasn't seen some bad stuff," Rigsby said.

So how to firefighters deal with the horrible things they see on fire or accident scenes?

"You know it's one of those things that firemen don't like to talk about first off. Second off what we try to do is you'll see a lot of firemen deal with it among ourselves," Rigsby said.

"Having a close knit family, friends and the brotherhood of the fire department. Really that's the best outlet for me. Just to get back, sit down with your crew over a meal and talk about it and just kind of hash it out," Michael Norman, another Hoover firefighter said.

The Hoover Fire Department has an employee assistance program that offers mental help for anyone who needs it. Chief Wingate feels the program works and says fire fighters shouldn't be ashamed to use it.

"It's hard for a man and sometimes women too to come forward and tell you what's on their minds. I believe in PTSD. I believe that you see ugly things. I know, I've seen them. Things that stick with you..things that come back to your mind when you don't want them to and it affects you. I believe there are some big problems out there and therefore we've had to address it because we do see some ugly things," Wingate added.

The IAFF says it wants people to know that no firefighter stands alone. If first responders are feeling tense, anxious or scared there are plenty of resources available to them.

National (US) Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Suicide Prevention Resource Center (US)

Centre for Suicide Prevention (Canada)

The National Council For Suicide Prevention

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

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