Bismarck Fire Department takes steps to cut back cancer

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BISMARCK, N.D. - Being a firefighter carries with it certain risks. And it's not just on-the-job dangers.

The Bismarck Fire Department says they're nine percent more likely to be diagnosed with cancer, and fourteen percent more likely to die from the disease.

Fire fighters take off at a moments notice to respond to fires and other emergencies across the city, but over the years the job has gotten more dangerous.

"We've got petro-chemical based materials that make up our home furnishings. Those materials they burn faster, they burn hotter, they give off a far more toxic mix of gasses and smoke," said Owen Fitzsimmons, fire marshal.

"That react differently, put different exposures to our firefighters, and that put them at a greater risk for cancer," said Brooks Martin, battalion chief.

Firefighters' gear is now heavier to protect their skin more, they take showers when they get back from calls. They also clean their gear more often in industrial washing machines separate from anything else to prevent cross contamination.

"There was a time in the fire service where a dirty set of turnout gear was looked at as a badge of honor, that the dirtier you were maybe the better firefighter you were, and I think we've made that cultural shift now to understand that that dirty gear really is more of a threat to you than it is a badge of honor," said Martin.

Washing takes a couple hours before gear is usable again. The cleaning service they used to use would take gear out of service for a day or two.

"We want all of our people to have a very productive environment here that they work in, and be able to, at the end of their career here, be able to go and live a nice retirement and not have to worry about the long lasting effects of what they've been exposed to," said Martin.

They also found that diesel exhaust would build up in the station and might contribute to the cause. Special hoses are attached to the trucks to catch the fumes, and they pop off easily when the truck is on the move.

Industrial washing machines have been installed in two stations, and the other three will get them next year. ​