North Texas

Firefighters Supporting Each Other Through Expensive Cancer Battle

New developments in a story NBC 5 first reported Monday night. Emerging research shows that firefighters are at risk for developing cancer because of what they breathe and absorb on fire scenes. But there's no real system in place to protect them financially if they get sick.

Now, firefighters are finding new ways to take care of their own.

Bedford Fire is a small department but it's been one of the leaders in North Texas working to prove the link between cancer and fighting fire. Now they're preparing to move to the next step: raising money to support firefighters through the difficult and expensive fight for their lives.

The risk of exposure isn’t only on scene. When firefighters pull back into the station, odds are good they’re carrying unwanted souvenirs, the soot and smoke that attaches to their gear and sneaks in through the seams of their gear, or spreads around.

"If I wear my pants back from a fire and I've got soot all over my pants and I'm in a cab with these guys, every one of us are exposed to those carcinogens," said Bedford Firefighter Chris Conner.

Conner has seen the damage that can cause. Late last year, he lost a good friend and mentor, Lieutenant Keith Long, to colon cancer.

"There wasn't a person here that didn't look up to him," Conner said.

As head of the Bedford Firefighters Association, Conner fought long and hard to help prove Lt. Long's disease, and death, were caused by his job.

Then last month Lt. Long’s name was added to the International Association of Firefighters memorial to honor those who have died in the line of duty.

"To get to that point and see his name on that wall, I can't tell you the joy," Conner said.

Conner also saw the financial burden on Lt. Long's family, meeting a $10,000 deductible every year of his four-year cancer fight.

So he's starting a foundation to cover out-of-pocket medical costs, for the growing number of firefighters in need.

Conner gets notified of every line-of-duty death around the country.

"I can't recall one in the last 8 months that hasn't been associated to cancer," he said.

Early detection is key so starting this January, every Bedford firefighter who wants to will be tested for the smallest sign of cancer.

"It's kind of scary, do I really want to know?” Conner said. “But I do. If I can treat it early then let's get on top of it."

Bedford Fire tried to start that early detection blood test this year but the company they were working with was overwhelmed by the need, telling NBC 5 they've been contacted by 30 other departments who want the same testing done.

So they've turned to a new system to handle the large numbers that should be ready by the end of the month.

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