Firefighters across the nation and around the world are recognized as heroes for putting themselves in harm’s way and running into dangerous situations as others run other way, to keep citizens safe. The U.S. Fire Administration reported that 67 firefighters died in the line of duty in 2016, but firefighters are still in danger long after they walk away from the scene of a fire and are an increased risk of a disease that so many around the world are affected by each and every day:


Cancer.


In a multi-year study released in July 2016, the CDC reported that, based on U.S. cancer rates, fire fighters have a greater number of cancer diagnoses and cancer-related deaths than the general U.S. population. There were about twice as many firefighters with malignant mesothelioma, most likely occurring due to exposure to asbestos while fighting fire.


In an effort led by firefighter and paramedic, Ty Wheeler, the Johnston-Grimes Fire Department is looking into purchasing three saunas, one for each station, to help reduce their risk of cancer. Wheeler, age 28, was hired as a part-time firefighter at the Johnston Fire Department in 2011 and a full-time firefighter at the Grimes Fire Department in 2013 before the two cities merged their departments.


Wheeler, who serves as the State Director for the Firefighter Cancer Support Network in Iowa, first heard about the use of the saunas in 2016 when he attended a managing officer program in Baltimore. Since becoming the State Director, he has gone all over the state to raise firefighter cancer awareness with other departments.


“Many people don’t realize that firefighters are at a higher risk of cancer — significant risk of cancer, actually,” Wheeler said. “So that’s something that we’re trying to eliminate.”


Wheeler said that there has been research that suggests that the use of saunas can help detoxify a firefighter’s body once they get back to the station after fighting a fire.


He said that the study was done shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on firefighters that were working at Ground Zero for long periods of time. They were put in saunas and traces of toxic metals in the sweat on their skin.


Now, fire departments across Canada and the United States are starting to purchase these saunas, including the Fire Department in Ottumwa.


“It’s a growing concern in the fire service and we’re just trying to protect our firefighters here against any health concerns,” Wheeler said. “Not only cancer, but other health and wellness initiatives as well.”


Wheeler said that after fighting a fire, a firefighter can still smell soot and chemicals coming off of their bodies 2-3 days later, and that the sauna would help get those out of their bodies quicker.


While they haven’t seen the effects of cancer within their own department, Wheeler said that he has been contacted by people working in fire departments in the State of Iowa, looking for support from the Firefighter Cancer Support Network and that the issue is relevant in Iowa.


The Department is trying to raise $15,000 to purchase the three saunas at about $5,000 each from a Canadian company called SaunaRay, which Wheeler said is the industry leader. The saunas are made with toxin-free materials, as opposed to a standard residential sauna, which can release toxins when heated.


Each sauna, which will hold one firefighter each, will include an exercise bike, since it was found that light exercise while in the sauna will help to produce more sweat. Each firefighter would do a 20-30 minute protocol before hitting the showers.


The Department is seeking donations through a GoFundMe campaign online and will also take donations for the saunas at their annual pancake breakfast coming up in May.


“All the donations are going towards the health and wellness of our firefighters and a way that we can protect our firefighters against cancer,” Wheeler said.


The Department is trying to raise the funds for the saunas itself and is not seeking funds from either the City of Grimes or the City of Johnston, nor have they looked into grants or matching funds.


“If we do get close to our goal, we can certainly make up the rest, but with the help of the citizens of the community is going to make that goal a lot easier to obtain,” Wheeler said.


In the future, Wheeler said that as new departments are built in communities, decontamination areas should be included in the design plans, and that bigger departments throughout the country are already doing this when building new facilities.


He said that a study was done recently that suggested that the gear that firefighters wear could also cause cancer due to the fire-retardant materials that going into making it. Additionally, beyond that, Wheeler said that there is a lot that they still don’t know about firefighters’ links to cancer.


“We’re just at the tip of the iceberg,” Wheeler said. “We just don’t understand the cascading effects and what is all causing our cancer.”


Other cancer-reducing methods the Johnston-Grimes Fire Department has deployed include providing two hoods to each fire fighter and working towards having two sets of gear for each firefighter, allowing for one set to be washed with another set ready for the next call.


Donations can be made online on the campaign’s GoFundMe page at https://www.gofundme.com/johnstongrimes-fire-cancer.