January is Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month

Organizations are spending the month educating firefighters everywhere about preventing and surviving occupational cancer.
Published: Jan. 5, 2023 at 12:05 PM CST
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WICHITA FALLS, Texas (KAUZ) - All month long, firefighter associations are raising awareness about the leading cause of death among firefighters.

What a lot of people may not realize is that the immediate risk of entering a burning building is not as deadly as the long-term effects of putting out a fire. Organizations such as the International Association of Fire Fighters are spending the month educating firefighters everywhere about preventing and surviving occupational cancer.

Firefighters have about a 10% greater chance of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14% greater mortality rate once diagnosed.

Wichita Falls Fire Chief Ken Prillaman began his career about 45 years ago and has been serving as fire chief for three years. He said in that time, he’s seen an improvement in safety and prevention when it comes to occupational cancer.

“There was a time in our past when having the dirtiest gear and the dirtiest helmet was kind of a badge of honor. What we’ve come to accept is all that dirt is carcinogens,” Prillaman said.

Carcinogens are substances capable of causing cancer when it comes in contact with the skin. More than 200 different chemicals have been identified in smoke, most of which are carcinogens. That means all the dirt collected on their gear is highly hazardous.

“The carcinogens enter the body through the nasal passage or through your lungs, as well as through contact and so the act of fighting the fire is in full gear but there are other aspects where you’re not fully protected,” Prillaman said.

Prillaman said he’s known so many firefighters in his time that have been diagnosed with cancer, some of which have survived it and some who, unfortunately, have not. For those who have not been diagnosed, he describes it as a “ticking time bomb.”

“You don’t know whether it’s going to be you and if it’s going to be you, when it’s going to be you. We’ve had locally too many examples of firefighters that hardly get into retirement and learn that they’ve got cancer and it shortens their time as husband and father and grandfather,” Prillaman said.