Reality Check: Firefighters worry about new leading cause of death for them

Hendersonville Lt. Jared Morgan became a firefighter, because of his father. Morgan's dad died when he was 12 from cancer. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death for Americans. However, a new study shows that's no longer true for firefighters.

The International Association of Firefighters, a union, reports the leading cause of death for firefighters is cancer. The Asheville Fire Department recently held an awareness training for its firefighters, and departments are taking more precautions.

To be fit to fight fires, Hendersonville firefighters work out daily.

"It's very important for us," said Hendersonville Fire Lt. Jared Morgan.

Moving swiftly can help fight off heart disease, but, nowadays, health concerns go further.

"Management here takes this very seriously," Morgan explained, showing a log firefighters have to sign when they wash their gear.

Once firefighters respond to a fire, they can't use their gear again until it's cleaned. That's because of the department's focus on reducing cancer risks.

"It is very important that we exchange these out after each fire because this actually rests up against your skin, which is closer to your glands that can actually absorb a lot more of the toxins a lot quicker," Morgan said of the hoods firefighters wear under their helmets.

Morgan became a firefighter because of his father.

"My dad was a firefighter for 25 years, and it's pretty much all I knew," Morgan said.

It's also because of his father that hed wants to take safety measures.

"My dad actually passed away from cancer," said Morgan.

He lost his dad when he was 12.

"That's why I think I want to take more precautions now that we know more about the risk of cancer so that I can still be around for my sons whenever they're 12 years old, as well," said Morgan.

When a truck leaves its station, firefighters head into the unknown. Asheville Fire Department provided GoPro video from several fires to show what firefighters walk into.

"Black soot on our gear was a sign of experience, and we would leave it on our gear. Now, we've got to get that off as soon as possible and get in the shower after a fire," said Joy Ponder, a division chief in the Asheville Fire Department.

Ponder's familiar with why things are changing.

"I've been fighting cancer all of 2016, so I wanted to make sure I could do everything possible to keep another firefighter from going through what I went through," said Ponder.

She continued fighting fires while fighting breast cancer.

"I went through surgery and a lot of chemo therapy and seven weeks of radiation, which I just finished. And I worked through all of it. I love what I do. I love being a firefighter and serving the community. So, I wanted to make sure that I was ready to be back on the job, and so here I am," she said.

The day News 13 interviewed Ponder, a Fletcher business caught fire. The firefighters' union said synthetics and plastics used in construction are one reason cancer rates are up. The union said firefighters have a cancer rate 9-12 percent higher than the general population. That's why departments are making changes.

Asheville and Hendersonville use air monitors, requiring firefighters to stay on their oxygen until the air is safe to breathe. However, firefighters also worry about absorbing chemicals into their skin.

News 13 met Ponder three weeks out from radiation.

"I'm good! I'm on the road to recovery. I'm happy to be at work and happy to be out serving the community," said Ponder.

She wants her fight to serve as a reminder for other firefighters.

"Me, having two kids of my own, I want to be there for them in the long term," said Ponder.

Morgan has his reminder right on a fire truck that's dedicated to his dad.

"Hopefully, he's there with me no matter what, but a little added protection being on that truck," he said.

Morgan's father was honored this year on the fallen firefighter memorial in Colorado Springs. The IAFF considers it a line of duty death.

Ponder said they're pushing to get laws changed in North Carolina so a firefighter would be eligibile for disability if they have certain types of cancer -- 33 states have a law like that.

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