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Firefighters 14% more likely to die from cancer, research shows

In 2022, the International Association of Firefighters added 469 names to their memorial wall. 348 of the names added were members who died from occupational cancer.

BENTON COUNTY, ARKANSAS, Ark. — In 2022, the International Association of Firefighters added 469 names to their memorial wall. 348 of the names added were members who died from occupational cancer.

The Firefighter Cancer Support Network says first responders are 14% more likely than the general population to die from cancer.

After more than 20 years with the Springdale Fire Department, Captain Bud Planchon was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2009.

"He was a very stoic and pragmatic man. He hung in there, but it was a long five years," said Jane Sexton Planchon, Bud's wife. "A stellar lead leader in the fire services, but also a wonderful husband and very involved father."

The Springdale Fire Captain eventually left behind a wife and three children after losing his battle with cancer in 2014.

"So when I first started, it was pretty common to come into this job, having a good idea that you're likely to get cancer," said Brian Bevis, Captain of Rogers' Ladder 1. "There's a big rich history with the fire service. So you hear about, like the old guys that would have beards and they would dunk their beards in water  and that would be their filter for smoke, right? So we've come a long way from there."

Tom Jenkins, Rogers fire chief,  was elected to serve on the Board of Directors for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) as the Second Vice President. He is the current chairperson of the Past President's Council for the IAFC.

"It's top of mind for me every day when I come to work and a lot of decisions that we make and a lot of things that we do here in Rogers relate to trying to make sure that our firefighters are safe," said Chief Jenkins.

According to Rogers Fire Chief Jenkins, funding and 9/11 helped bring awareness to the issue of cancer in the occupation. He explained that it's been a constant battle, as new cancer reduction protocols are learned every year.

"It's those invisible hazards that that a lot of times cancer manifest as that we have to safeguard against and that's that's a battle and that we're fighting as the fire service across the country," said Chief Jenkins.

At many fire departments across the country, their uniforms protect every inch of the body and include their own pressurized air. Decon buckets clean firefighters on the scene to rid of any soot or carcinogens. Back at the station, vents have been added to remove exhaust fumes from the building. 

"That's the hope for everyone - that once we leave here, we can live a normal life. We've put in the work we can, we can have a good retirement where we're happy and healthy and get to enjoy our time away from here," said Captain Bevis.

"It is a risky career. It's also the best job in the world. So it's unfortunate that we see statistically, in the data, an associated increase in cancer in firefighters. I wish we didn't see it," said Chief Jenkins.

"We know that there's some risk, but if we can help someone that's in a really bad situation, we accept the risk," added Captain Bevis.

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