ROCKLAND, Maine — Fighting fires is a dangerous job. But while the immediate risks are very real, other dangers can be a threat years later. Because of dangerous smoke and fumes, firefighters have a higher than average risk of cancer.
Rockland Fire Chief Chris Whytock is hoping to keep his firefighters safe. Nearly all the city’s 28 full and on-call firefighters had special health screenings on Friday, thanks to a donation from a local resident.
A large truck, staffed with a doctor and medical technicians, came from Pennsylvania to screen Rockland firefighters for a range of health issues, including cancer.
Chief Whytock joined others from the department in taking the tests, including blood work, lung function tests, EKG and chest X-ray. Those tests were followed by physicals from the doctor. The Chief says the department takes all the precautions it can, but smoke and fumes are still a risk.
"Its serious," he says. "Modern homes nowadays -- everything is plastic or made with petroleum in it, and the air and carcinogens put off when this stuff burns can be deadly. There is some material inside homes -- one good breath when it burned and you’re unresponsive."
Lt. Patrick Lowe, a 15-year veteran of the fire department, says air pack breathing devices are now issued to most firefighters on a call and work from start to finish -- a change from how things were done when he started, Lowe says.
But he says protecting their health also needs medical attention, as a way for firefighters to secure insurance protection, if needed.
"Early detection and proving we don’t have cancer now helps our case in the future. If we develop cancer, it's job related."
The Chief says the $11,000 cost of that testing was all paid for by a local resident who wanted to help the fire department with needs the city didn’t have in the budget. Chief Whytok says when the offer was made, health screening was "the first thing on my mind".
The Chief says they plan to do screening again in a few years and hope other departments can do the same thing, to protect their own firefighters.