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'Earliest detection is best,' a new firefighter app aims to better track cancer risks

FILE - Presumptive cancer benefits for professional and volunteer firefighters have been included in the state’s 2022 budget. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)
FILE - Presumptive cancer benefits for professional and volunteer firefighters have been included in the state’s 2022 budget. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)
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It’s the deadlier than fire, on-the-job danger every firefighter faces - cancer.

The CDC has found cancer is now the leading cause of death among firefighters, and the World Health Organization has now defined firefighting as a cancer-causing profession.

In May 2021, News 13 debuted its investigative documentary Deadlier than Fire, focusing on the need for presumptive worker’s compensation benefits for North Carolina firefighters diagnosed with cancer.

Now, News 13 has gotten an exclusive look at an app that helps connect firefighters with potentially lifesaving data through a new cancer-exposure tracking component.

Why cancer tracking in the fire service matters

“It’s more than a career, Mike Marshall said, flipping back through a photo album of his time working for Asheville Fire Department.

It’s been 17 years since the former captain retired.

“It’s just a brotherhood, it’s a bond,” Marshall said.

It's a connection that keeps him involved. In 2017, News 13 was there as Marshall participated in a community coat drive. Over his time with the department, he’s also supported MDA fundraisers.

“This gentleman here just died of cancer, David Suttles, within the last month,” Marshall said.

Looking back on his service, over pictures of his colleagues' faces, Marshall grew emotional.

“This gentleman died of cancer. This gentleman now has cancer. This gentleman right here had brain cancer, had two significant surgeries and had to retire,” Marshall said, flipping through the images.

Cancer also took his best friend and 28-year Asheville Fire Department veteran Bob Holmes.

“(He) had no symptoms, until all of a sudden he’s sick and it wound up in his lungs and his kidneys,” Marshall explained.

Legal protections make tracking cancers tough. Marshall once counted as many as 70 Asheville firefighters impacted by cancers over 20 years. It's likely increased. Asheville gives firefighters a way to track exposure risks. Smaller or volunteer departments don't have those tools.

“When you’re dealing with cancer, the earliest detection is the best, where you can stop it in its tracks so to speak,” Marshall said.

Firefighter Connect

That’s the aim of a new tool in firefighters’ hands -- their smartphone.

“Basically, a cancer exposure tracking system,” said Robert Queen, co-founder of the app Firefighter Connect, and a 33-year volunteer firefighter with the New Bern and Shanghai fire departments.

The app, Firefighter Connect, began as a way to link firefighters and stations nationwide. Now, a $120,000 grant and a partnership with the North Carolina Firefighter Cancer Alliance looks to expand its reach.

“This is more or less a gift from the firefighters in North Carolina to the firefighters around the country,” said Travis McGaha, Concord firefighter and North Carolina Firefighter Cancer Alliance Board member.

It delivers on the alliance's promise to provide better tracking.

“Generally, the tracking is on the back end, after cancer has already happened. There been very little ability to track leading up,” McGaha said.

The Health Exposures Analysis and Tracking component, or HEAT, gives firefighters a one-stop shop to record daily exposures.

“You’re able to enter were you on suppression, were you protecting exposures, what were your jobs, did you run the pump, what exposure did you have, how long were you in the hot zone,” Queen said.

Firefighters can also document any changes in their medical history during annual physicals.

“If each firefighter takes it upon their own to track their own exposures, to track their physicals, to track their wellness,” McGaha said.

News 13 questioned, “Could this information be shared with your physician?

“Yes, a firefighter will be able to pull their own data from their phone and create a report that they can give their physician,” Queen said.

Research component

Data entered in the app may also give researchers a resource. Personal data removed, the results are sent to a website, where researchers can access reports.

“Researchers say at a university level or higher medical levels could use that data to do some predictive analysis to see what types of cancers affect firefighters,” Queen said.

“If you are exposed to carcinogens, it means you’re doing your job as a firefighter, not that we want that exposure, but it comes with the job. But when we understand what causes the exposure, if we can reduce it, if we can avoid it in certain cases, it will go a lot further in helping us stay healthier longer,” McGaha said.

The app is set to be unveiled at the South Atlantic Fire Rescue Expo in Raleigh. It's free in app stores and relies on firefighters being diligent about tracking their data.

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