The deadly link between firefighters and cancer: A KTUL investigation
Bryon Cass will always remember the first big fire call he went on. He carries a small reminder of it in his pocket.
“I found this, the first night or the second night that we were down there digging through the rubble at the Murrah building,” said Cass.
Cass was just a few months out of rookie school when the Oklahoma City bombing happened. In total, 168 people died, hundreds more were injured and Cass was right in the heart of it. He spent weeks sifting through the rubble, at first looking for survivors, but finding mostly victims.
“We came around the corner, there it was. Just sad, just heartbreaking,” said Cass.
His career spanned more than two decades at different fires stations across Oklahoma City. About seven years ago, he noticed a spot on his face that just wouldn’t go away.
“I was thinking, well, they’ll just cut it out and everything will be fine. It didn’t quite work out that way,” said Cass.
Ever since then, Cass has been battling skin cancer. He knows he’s not alone. When asked, he thought of 15 to 20 other firefighters he knew who fought cancer and lost.
Coincidence? Maybe, but Cass wonders if it’s also an occupational hazard. Go to almost any fire house and you’ll hear the same suspicions.
“As we’re learning more, we’re finding out how much we don’t know,” said Chief Mike Mallory, with the Tulsa Fire Department.
It’s Mallory’s job to make sure his firefighters are safe. Now, he’s focusing on what happens after the fire is out. When Channel 8’s I-team asked Mallory how many firefighters he knew who died of cancer, his answer was short, at first.
“I don’t know what the tally is, a bunch,” said Mallory.
But when he had to think about it, it wasn’t just a number he was adding up. It was lives lost and families missing a loved one. Unlike the danger that can be seen as men and women run into a burning building, cancer isn’t so obvious but just as deadly.
“More than it should,” said Mallory, choking back tears.
Mallory said they’re trying to make sure their firefighters don’t sit in dirty gear. They’ve also started getting new hoods to protect their heads and necks. They also run their gear through a special $20,000 washing machine called an ‘Extractor.’
However, Mallory said it seems like a monthly occurrence, where he hears another firefighter or retired firefighter has been given a cancer diagnosis.
“You have that same heartache, even if you don’t know them. You know, it’s still one of those that still hurts. It brings up that question, am I next?” said Mallory.
Mallory said on average they’ll get eight to 10 uniforms to wash each day. Even after they run them through the machine, there are still questions.
“How do you define clean? How do you test for clean?” asked Mallory.
A second set of gear for firefighters or extractors in each station may help, but that will cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. There’s also no guarantee it’ll stop cancer.
Back in Oklahoma City, Cass will wear his cancer scars with him for the rest of his life.
“All of this stuff they cut out of here, the radiation, I can’t get my mouth open to eat,” said Cass, showing how he can barely open his mouth.
In spite of it all, Cass is optimistic. Not just because the tumor is shrinking, but he’s hoping to get back to work this month. It’s a passion that even a cancer diagnosis won’t extinguish.
“If the end result is what it was, I’d do it again,” said Cass.