Grant Helps Florida Fire Departments Fight Cancer

Fire departments can use the funds to purchase any equipment or cleaning supplies necessary to help reduce firefighters' exposure to cancer-causing agents.

Three departments receive funding through state program

Sara-Megan Walsh, The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla.

(MCT)

May 7—DAVENPORT — Polk County Fire Rescue has received more than $9,000 to purchase supplies and equipment designed to help reduce the rate of cancer among firefighters.

Jimmy Patronis, Florida’s chief financial officer and state fire marshal, visited Polk County Fire Station 38 in Davenport on Thursday to announce the first round of grant recipients under the state’s Firefighter Cancer Decontamination Equipment Grant Program. The fund was created in June 2020.

Polk Fire Chief Robert Weech accepted a check for $9,135 with Minneola and New Port Richie fire departments receiving about $11,250 and $10,245, respectively.

“We have to find ways, innovative ways to fight cancer. It’s the stuff we can’t see that’s embedded in our environment that causes it,” Weech said. “We know what the risks are with burning buildings, we know what the risks are with the pandemic, this is a hidden risk we have to take seriously.”

Firefighters have a 9% higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14% higher mortality rate than the general population, according to studies cited by the Firefighter Cancer Support Network. One of Lakeland’s own, firefighter and paramedic Clay Geiger, has been battling a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

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“This hits very close to home to all of us in the fire service,” Wayne Bernie Bernasca, president of Florida Professional Firefighters, an organization representing 27,000 firefighters across the state.

Fire departments can use the funds to purchase any equipment or cleaning supplies necessary to help reduce firefighters’ exposure to cancer-causing agents, according to Patronis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the grant guidelines have been extended to include the purchase of personal protective equipment.

According to Weech, Polk has the money earmarked to purchase two extractors that act like oversized industrial washing machine to wash firefighters’ gear to remove carcinogenic particles between uses. Each machine costs approximately $4,000 to $5,000. Currently, five of the Polk’s 45 fire stations are have extractors for firefighters to use.

“The hunt doesn’t end here, but this certainly goes a long way to help,” Weech said. “We’re very happy and gracious to receive the funds.”

Lakeland Fire Chief Doug Riley attended the check presentation, even though the city’s fire department did not receive funds. Riley said the city has already equipped each of its fire stations with an extractor and other cancer prevention measures.

In July 2019, Lakeland Fire Department debuted its first clean-cab concept apparatus, Engine 51, built with custom features that allow used fire gear to be stored in a separate compartment from firefighters. Upon arriving back from a major fire or operation, Riley said the city’s firefighters are instructed to wash their gear and shower before returning to active duty.

“Dirty gear used to be a badge of honor,” Riley said, “the new badge of honor is squeaky clean gear.”

Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at swalsh@theledger.com or 863-802-7545.

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