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January dedicated to helping firefighters prevent, survive occupational cancer

Cancer accounts for 65% of line-of-duty deaths added to the Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial Wall of Honor each year.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The leading cause of death among firefighters is occupational cancer.

The disease now accounts for more than 75% of line-of-duty deaths added to the Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial Wall of Honor each year. That's according to the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF).

This month is dedicated to ensuring firefighters have the education and tools needed to help reverse this worrying trend.

"It's a huge impact for us; to know the side effects of cancer and what it can do to our individuals. Not only that, but to their families and our fire station family as well," Rural Metro Fire Department Captain and Public Information Officer Jeffrey Bagwell said. 

Bagwell, who has been with Rural Metro for more than three decades, said a multitude of factors will help save more lives.

Bagwell said a "shift in mentality" is needed. He explained that years ago, it was a badge of honor to have gear and equipment that was dirty enough to reflect a "hard day's work."

Now, he said, firefighters are encouraged to thoroughly clean all personal protective equipment (PPE) and turnout gear as soon as they are back from a fire. 

Protective hoods utilizing new technology that prevents hazardous materials from coming into contact with firefighters' skin is also a key component, according to Bagwell. 

He also emphasized the need for better policies and procedures.

Training that increases cancer awareness and physical well-being may encourage firefighters to adopt work practices that lower their exposures to cancer-causing substances, according to the CDC. 

To learn more about Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month, click here.