GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — For Battalion Chief Kathleen Thompson, the Grand Rapids Fire Department is the family business. 

“I’m second generation. My dad did 40 years, and two sisters that did over 40 and I’m at 28,” Thompson said. 

She’s seen and experienced the dangers of the job, from the obvious to the not so obvious.

“The general population will have a 40% exposure chance to cancer, while the fire department, we have a 9% greater than the population,” said Thompson, referring to growing cancer concern in the fire service. “We have a 14% higher mortality rate because we get cancers that they’re not used to dealing with.”

The federal government is reaching out to firefighters across the nation to better understand the cancer risk they face doing their job. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety have established the National Firefighter Registry for Cancer.

Firefighters, from big cities to small towns, airports to industry and the miliary, will share info on their health and lifestyles to give researchers a better idea of how to deal with cancer in the fire service.

The program is voluntary.

“They can look at the big picture of firefighting and try and figure out why we are struggling so much,” Thompson said.

The study is just one example of how the fire service is battling higher cancer rates.

Years ago, most of what burned in common building fires were natural fibers like wood and wools. These days it’s plastics and other human-made products. When they burn, the products produce cancer-causing carcinogens.

Those carcinogens don’t go away after the fire is put out, clinging to firefighter gear and clothing, permeating the inside of fire engines and fire stations. 

“You’re never going to eliminate firefighters going into a hazardous environment on the job. But you can eliminate some of those carcinogens from coming back into their living quarters at their fire station,” Cascade Township Fire Chief Adam Magers said.

When it’s completed next fall, the township’s new $10.5 million fire station will be a healthier place to work by design.

The new firehouse will feature a ‘hot zone’ where firefighters will park their apparatus, and a ‘cold zone’ where firefighters train, eat and sleep.

In between the two is a buffer, known as the ‘warm zone.’

“We’ve got separate turnout gear storage that has one separate HVAC systems that pressurize all of those carcinogens from coming into the bays. You’ve got turnout gear extractors, which is basically a large washer-dryer system that’s specifically made to reduce those carcinogens off your gear,” Magers said.

There are also designated wash areas for firefighters.

Aside from the new station, Cascade has also increased early detection efforts during firefighter’s yearly physicals.

“They’ll scan all of the firefighter organs and all of the hot spot where cancer would typically collect in a firefighter,” Magers said.

Thompson hopes the registry will lead to more answers and change that help firefighters lead healthy lives both on the job, and after they’ve put in their time.

“If it can make us safer and healthier, we would like to retire and have a nice, long healthy retirement,” Thompson said.