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Georgia Firefighter Cancer Fund

The International Association of Firefighters says cancer is now the leading cause of death among firefighters.

While thirty years ago, firefighters were most often diagnosed with asbestos-related cancers, today the cancers are more often leukemialymphoma or myeloma, officials say.

Fire departments in Boston, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Toronto and Calgary all report elevated cancer rates.

The most aggressive cancers were oral, digestive, respiratory and urinary.

A CDC/National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study tracked nearly 30,000 firefighters across the country in 2010 and found higher rates of cancer than the general population.

Congress is currently considering whether to approve the creation of a National Firefighter Cancer Registry — to get a firm handle on the number of deaths.

Now, fire departments nationwide are ordering their men and women to take the danger from chemicals much more seriously. No longer is a firefighter’s soot-covered face a badge of honor. Departments are buying air tanks that provide oxygen for 45 minutes, rather than the standard 30 minutes.

Incident commanders are ordering firefighters to keep their masks on until they are out of the smoke and washed down by decontamination teams on the scene. And back at the station, firefighters are being told to change into a second set of turnout gear while industrial washing machines clean the dirty equipment.

Finn, a 33-year veteran of the department, has been known to arrive at the scene of a fire and yell at firefighters who take their masks off too soon.

“Sometimes I use colorful language” said Finn. “I’ve buried way too many friends over my 33 years. Too many friends … so I tell them, ‘Think about your wife, your husband, your boyfriend, your girlfriend before you take that mask off your face.”