KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Occupational cancer is the number one cause of death in line-of-duty firefighters, according to the International Association of Firefighters.

January is Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month, and Rural Metro Fire Department has made updates to equipment to mitigate the risk of the disease.

Jeff Bagwell with the department said firefighters started wearing new multi-layered hoods that allow firefighters to breathe but keep contaminants out. They also have designated rooms for gear, instead of hanging it inside the apparatus bay.

“The problem with that was, what’s also in this bay is diesel exhaust and diesel particulate, which can obviously contaminate gear. So, now we have rooms that are specific for turnout gear,” Bagwell said.

Cancer in firefighters is often caused by exposure to harmful chemicals according to Bagwell.

“When we’re hot and sweaty, your skin pores naturally open and suck in whatever carbon particulate we have picked up in a fire,” Bagwell said. “Those particulates are products of combustion, that can lead to the cancers that are killing firefighters across the country.” 

Caleb Tuell is a Captain Paramedic with the department and says cancer is just one risk they consider when becoming a firefighter.

“It’s something that we know getting into the job, we try to do the best that we can to take preventative risks as much as possible,” Tuell said.

Tuell hopes that the community will continue to support the fire department.

“Their support helps us get the equipment and the supplies that we need to be able to take care of ourselves so that we can turn around and take care of them as best as possible,” Tuell said.