Ohio more than doubles firefighter health program budget
Officials plan to award an additional $2.7 million after receiving hundreds of applications for equipment and improvements to prevent cancer
By Lucas Sullivan and Mike Wagner
The Columbus Dispatch
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation is more than doubling its financial efforts to help protect firefighters from the occupational cancer threat after being flooded with requests for help from hundreds of fire chiefs around the state.
The bureau has already awarded $2 million in grants to 199 fire departments this fiscal year. But officials announced on Tuesday a plan to award an additional $2.7 million in grant money in the coming months after receiving another 245 applications asking for new gear, new equipment, or improvements to fire stations that will better protect firefighters from harmful chemicals or toxins.
"When we call firefighters for help, they're at our door as fast as humanly possible," said Sarah Morrison, the agency's administrator. "It's only right that we do the same when they need equipment critical to their health and safety."
The urgency within the fire service to increase its cancer-prevention efforts comes after The Dispatch series "Unmasked," which is available online at Dispatch.com/unmasked, detailed the high rate of cancer among firefighters and the struggle within the firefighting services to do more to combat it.
Much of the series chronicled the life of Columbus firefighter Mark Rine, 36. He has terminal cancer that has been attributed to his work as a firefighter.
Rine has traveled around the country during the past three years to warn firefighters of their exposure to carcinogens, such as flame-retardant chemicals, and other toxins released into the air when buildings and vehicles burn.
Rine said he is encouraged that more and more fire chiefs are enacting policies and safety measures to better protect their departments from cancer.
"It is rewarding to see," Rine said. "Governing bodies are taking the risks that firefighters encounter regularly in a serious manner and helping these men and women go home to their families healthy."
Chiefs are using the BWC funds to purchase equipment that includes new protective hoods that firefighters wear under their helmets that protect their face and neck.
Departments also need gloves that protect hands and wrists from exposure, and industrial washing machines, called extractors, that remove harmful chemicals that soak into the gear firefighters wear.
As part of the program, some larger departments must match the BWC grants with their own funds to help mitigate costs.
Genoa Township Fire Chief Gary Honeycutt said he used a $10,075 grant to purchase an extractor that replaced a 22-year-old unit. Honeycutt said the machine will allow gear to be cleaned by their next shift.
"Cancer is a leading threat to firefighter health and we take that threat seriously," Honeycutt said in a news release.
As part of its reporting, The Dispatch conducted two statewide surveys of professional, full-time firefighters and fire chiefs from across Ohio.
Among the findings:
- One in 6 of the nearly 1,300 firefighters who responded to the survey said they had been diagnosed with cancer at some point in their careers.
- Firefighters are at least 14 percent more likely than the public to develop cancer.
- They're twice as likely to get skin and testicular cancer and mesothelioma — a cancer that grows in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart and is caused by asbestos, according to a 2015 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Copyright 2018 The Columbus Dispatch