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The Firefighter Cancer Collective is teaming with Sarasota Memorial Hospital to fight the disease

 A man stands at a podium in front of a red wall and beside a TV with multiple fire department logos.
Sarasota Memorial Hospital
Longboat Key Fire Rescue Chief Paul Dezzi speaks at a press conference May 23, 2023, announcing the Firefighter Cancer Collective, a partnership between the Brian D. Jellison Cancer Institute at Sarasota Memorial Hospital and Sarasota and Manatee county fire departments.

Fire departments in Sarasota and Manatee counties have teamed up to create the Firefighter Cancer Collaborative. The group is partnering with Sarasota Memorial Hospital to research the increase of cancer diagnoses in firefighters.

When Longboat Key Fire Chief Paul Dezzi began to see an increase of cancer diagnoses in his firefighters, he reached out to the Brian D. Jellison Cancer Institute at Sarasota Memorial Hospital.

Over the last year, other fire chiefs from Sarasota and Manatee counties joined Dezzi and the cancer institute to form the Firefighter Cancer Collective.

“There's many, many risks that firefighters take — and one of them we're learning more and more about will be cancers, all forms of types of cancer that are out there," Dezzi said at a recent press conference. "And when you look at the different forms of cancer, many of them are related to the job that we perform.”

Kelly Batista is the executive director of the Cancer Institute. She said the research on the link between cancer and firefighting is ongoing.

While carcinogens like asbestos and other inhalants are a factor, another aspect is the absorption of chemicals into firefighter's skin.

They’re looking for ways to reduce that exposure.

"That might be through the washing of their gear, doffing their gear — so removing their gear most immediately," Batista said. "Making sure that they're not keeping things on their person longer than necessary, such as the hoods they wear around their necks."

Fire stations have implemented new programs to help give education and awareness of cancer risks to firefighters while encouraging them to seek regular screenings.

Dezzi said one of his stations has implemented a cancer initiative called the red, yellow, and green light method.

"Meaning when the firefighter comes back from a fire call, they're not to enter the fire station with any of the uniform or gear that they wore while they were on the fire," he said.

Each colored area is a different place for firefighters to shower and get cleaned up after a fire, to leave their equipment to be cleaned, or to change into clean clothes.

Despite the initiatives, Dezzi said the physical effects of the job remain immense.

“When the firefighters joined the fire department, we knew it was a dangerous job," he said. "What we didn't know was that over a period of years, the cumulative effect of what it would cause to our bodies, and we're just learning that now.”

Batista said the partnership intends to find ways to provide firefighters education about their cancer risks and encourage them to seek regular screenings.

“And then also be able to for those who do get diagnosed with a cancer, to provide them the support that they need, going through that diagnosis and treatment,” she added.

Batista points to research that shows firefighters develop cancer at rates higher than the general population.

According to a 2010 study of nearly 30,000 career firefighters by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), they had a 9% increase in cancer diagnoses and a 14% increase of cancer-related deaths compared to the rest of the U.S. population.

“Florida specifically has identified 23 different cancers as a presumptive understanding that if a firefighter were to be diagnosed with one of those, it is more likely to be related to their profession,” said Batista.

Nothing about my life has been typical. Before I fell in love with radio journalism, I enjoyed a long career in the arts in musical theatre.
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