LOMPOC, Calif. -- After a Lompoc Fire engineer was diagnosed with work-related cancer, the department is sharing more about recent practices to reduce exposure to carcinogens.
“Cancer in the fire service is becoming a lot more prevalent," said Battalion Chief Brian Federmann. “We understand the risks of the job and understand what the community needs from us so that we can keep everybody safe, but it's scary."
According to the International Association of Firefighters, since 2002, almost two out of every three firefighters who died in the line of duty died of cancer.
“The repeated exposure to carcinogens from fire, as well as from diesel engines that we're around all the time, enhance our risk of getting cancer," Federmann said.
Lompoc Fire found out about the risks firsthand when engineer Chris Martinez was diagnosed with stage two colon cancer.
“When Chris was referred to his primary doctor he was a little bit shocked, like anybody would be," said Federmann.
But Martinez eventually took the news as a new challenge.
“He said 'No problem, I'll fight it, I'll beat it like I have anything else in my life'," shared Federmann.
As Martinez's chemotherapy regimen winds down and he gets ready to return to work in early February, Lompoc Fire is taking precautions, including annual medical exams for crews.
“About five years ago we started a comprehensive physical evaluation. It's recommended by the Fire Protection agency," said Federmann. “They do a full blood work, physical exam, ultrasounds of the heart, EKG's, respiratory tests, everything.”
Thanks to these check ups, Martinez was able to get a diagnosis early on.
“It was life saving for Chris.”
Federmann says the agency has new protective gear and decontamination procedures.
“At the end of a fire, we'll bring a crew out, we'll hose them down. We'll put their gear in the turnout bags. When they come back, we have a special cleaner and an extractor that will clean their gear.”
The battalion chief says they're also looking at other training practices and new technologies to protect their crews.
“And one thing we're really working on as a department, is we'd like to get exhaust systems within the station. So they're actually ducting that hooks up to the rear of the fire trucks. When we back in, that keeps the diesel exhaust out of the station and out of our living quarters, and runs it through a filtration system.”
Lompoc Fire is one of very few stations that doesn't have this system already.
“We're working through the budget process to try to save some money to do that.”
Federmann says the exhaust system costs about $100,000. A local nonprofit organization is donating $10,000. The department is still looking at grants and other ways to secure more funds.
As for Martinez, the fire department says he is finishing chemotherapy early. The engineer was also recently promoted to fire captain.
“We can't wait for Chris to come back, we've all missed him," said Federmann. "We're excited. He's been an actual inspiration to all of us, and many other departments.”