Special Report: Firefighters save lives -- but now the lives they need to save may be their own

Special Report: Firefighters save lives -- but now the lives they need to save may be their own

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Firefighters save lives but now the lives they need to save may be their own. When Mark Rine was first diagnosed with Melanoma, it had already progressed to stage four. 

"I don't know how many times people said oh, you got lucky, you got skin cancer... but a person dies from melanoma every 57 minutes," Rine said.Doctors gave Rine a 10% chance to live five years. That was six years ago. "Terminal is a hard word. When your 10-year-old son asks 'daddy what does terminal mean?' You have to explain that to your child," he said.

Rine's diagnosis set him on a search for answers. He collected data across Ohio. "How many of our guys are getting cancer, when are they getting cancer, what kind of cancers are they getting," Rine said. And what he found helped to start a movement "Cancer is an epidemic, to the true definition of 'epidemic,'" Rine said.

According to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, firefighters have twice the risk of getting testicular cancer and double the risk of mesothelioma. They also have higher risks of getting skin cancer, brain cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer. Cancer caused 70% of line-of-duty deaths in 2016. 

Rine came to Wisconsin to help sound the alarm. He spoke at a recent conference in Brookfield to help raise awareness about the cancer danger that firefighters face.

Mark Villalpando was there. He is a division chief in Racine and state director of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network and a cancer survivor. "I believe that I got cancer by being on this job," Villalpando said.

Villalpando thinks departments in Wisconsin are "moving in the right direction - every department knows that this is out there." But he also says there's more work to do. "We're breathing, we're touching stuff we've never touched before," Villalpando said.

According to research, almost everything in your house contains more synthetics, more petroleum products than ever. "What happens to these synthetic forms when they're burning? That's a fireman's office." Rine said. 

There is a long list of known carcinogens that can be released in a house fire. And in the high heat of battling a fire, the human body absorbs these carcinogens like a sponge. "Every 5 degrees more of heat... body absorption goes up 400 percent," Rine said.

So with the help of people like Rine and Villalpando, firefighters are being asked to change decades-old habits.

Greenfield Chief Jon Cohn says the soot on firefighters' gear or their body was once considered a badge of honor. "You didn't clean your gear, that was a token of how hard you worked," Cohn said. But now, that soot must be seen as deadly.  "We want to make clean cool," Cohn said.

There is a long list of changes that fire departments are making, and there's expensive equipment out there to use. But at virtually no cost, every firefighter can do three simple things to save their life:

  • Always wear a breathing mask on the job
  • Shower quickly after fighting a fire
  • Clean off gear

Mark Rine sees fire departments making these changes and sees it as part of his legacy. But, it might be another 10 to 15 years before we know if these changes are working.

"I will never see the benefits of what I'm doing now," Rine said.

He says he has no regrets about becoming a firefighter but knowing what he knows now, he would go back and change one thing.

"I've exposed them." Rine said. "All of my kids have taken turns wearing daddy's gear, all of them. I have pictures on my phone. Looking back on it now, I wish I never would have let them touch my gear."

More research is being done. The CDC is now tracking firefighter deaths nationwide.

Closer to home, Greenfield Fire and UWM are starting a study about high heat and absorption. 

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