Battle beyond the flames

CENTRAL ILLINOIS, Ill. (WCIA) -- It’s not the fires they face daily that is their biggest killer. But cancer is the real threat for those in the fire services.  

They put their lives on the line everyday to save our homes, our pets and much more as they battle fires.

It’s the help firefighters give which makes them who they are. But when the heroes need saving,

"I'll never forget it. The doctor called me on the phone and told said your biopsy results are in and you have cancer," says Naperville Fire Chief and Firefighter Cancer Support Network Director, Andy Dina. 

It’s a hard pill to swallow. 

"First thing I did was I rallied my family: My three boys and my wife. I gave them the news," states Dina.  

Andy Dina has fought fires for 30 years, but his fight against prostate cancer started at 46 years old. 

"Even today I can't believe this happened to me," says Dina.  

Now as a survivor he mentors other cancer stricken firefighters by helping them cope with the diagnosis.

"It's something you didn't think about years ago," Urbana Fire Chief, Brian Nightlinger.  

Illinois Fire Service Institute researchers report firefighters have a 14 percent increased risk for all cancers compared to people in other jobs.

For firefighter cancer fact sheet, click here

"I mean the things you would encounter in a burning building were primarily wood and cotton. Now they're plastics and synthetics,” says Nightlinger. 

Urbana Fire Chief Brian Nightlinger has battled fires more than 40 years and over the course of time, the culture has changed.  

"Nobody wanted to wash their fire gear because it was the badge of honor. If you had the dirtiest fire gear or the corner of your helmet was melted, it made you a fire god," says Nightlinger.

For the last 20 years research has developed showing firefighters are exposed to carcinogens out on the job. The skin is open to the dangers.

"We're really starting to understand the chemistry of that soot. Not just some black carbon or dirt that is left over on the firefighters skin or gear after the firefight. There's some chemicals in there that are known carcinogens," states Horn. 

"Because of that badge of honor of the dirty fire gear, it means you're most experienced firefighter, it was difficult to get people to clean their gear," says Nighlinger. 

That’s no longer the case for the Urbana Fire Department. The department lost Fire Chief Russell “Rusty” Chism to cancer in 2015. 

"It took one of our brothers, somebody we cared about and we think about his family and the effect it's had on his family. I mean it's a big deal," says Nightlinger. 

He worked with Chism for years and calls him his brother and the two created new safety measures the department still uses today.    

The Urbana firefighters have spare gear. The gear is maintained and cleaned before heading out to back to back emergencies. They also encourage firefighters to wipe down after a fire.

"We cannot avoid all the soot and all the smoke 100 percent of the time. It's part of the job," says Horn.

Through different cleaning methods, their exposure and risk of cancer is reduced. Regardless, there’s some still willing to risk their lives for others. 

"Firefighters are going to do what firefighters do. They go out and they go in harms way to save people's lives," states Nightlinger. 

Many states, including Illinois, have laws presuming firefighters will get certain cancers because of the exposure on the job. 

If they are diagnosed, the laws allow firefighters and their families to get compensation and benefits. However volunteer firefighters are only eligible for that coverage in 13 states. 

Anyone looking for help can reach out to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network. Firefighters in need of assistance, can click here

For more information on the research, click here

Andy Dina will share his story more with Central Illinois on March 5. The public and firefighters are welcome to to listen to him speak in Mattoon and in Effingham. You can join him from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Fire Station 1 in Mattoon and from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in Effingham at the public library. 


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