SAN ANTONIO – Cancer is the No. 1 killer in fire departments across the nation and has taken the lives of three San Antonio firefighters in just two and a half years.
The problem is clear and our firefighting community has realized there are ways to fix it.
Adored and respected firefighter Todd “Woody” Woodcock joined the San Antonio Fire Department in 1998.
"He was diagnosed with chronic myelomonocytic leukemia, or CMML. Typically, those diagnosed with CMML are 65 and over," said his wife, Chrystal Woodcock.
It was a strange cancer for a healthy 41-year-old and it became clear to doctors and his fellow firefighters that Todd Woodcock’s career was likely the cause.
Todd Woodcock died in June 2016.
"If he would have known he wouldn't walk his daughter down the aisle or she would never hear him cheer for her at a karate tournament," Chrystal broke down a little in the middle of the thought.
It's an impossible sentence to finish, knowing her husband would have done anything to prevent it.
"It was right before he was diagnosed is when there was a big push about cancer in the fire service," Chrystal Woodcock said.
San Antonio fire Chief Charles Hood stood in his office showing old pictures of his early firefighting days. He pointed at the hood of his gear covered in soot. He said back in the day, he'd sit in it for hours.
"That dirty gear was a badge of honor, a mark of a good firefighter," he said while shaking his head.
Those photos show how much things have changed.
"Now, after the fire, we want them to decontaminate the truck, their equipment, themselves," Hood said.
New fire stations have ventilation fans to suck in firetruck exhaust fumes. Firefighters returning to the station are expected to take off their gear, wipe their faces and necks, and shower immediately.
"When you come out of a fire and you're sweating and your pores are open, everything's just soaking in there. You have a lot of exposure to the glands up here," Hood said, pointing to his neck. "So we're seeing a lot of issues there."
Each fire station has been retrofitted so the doors leading outside are sealed so that carcinogens, such as diesel fuel, can't get in. Also, all ice machines, vending machines and food are kept inside.
Plus, fire departments all over the nation use companies like Gear Cleaning Solutions for advanced cleaning and inspection.
"We clean the hoods, gloves, boots and the coats and jackets," said Cecie Jernelius, manager of Gear Cleaning Solutions. "Once the gear is spot cleaned, it goes into our extractor, and this is where the decontamination process begins. Once the gear is dried, it has to get tested and inspected. Then if there's any repairs to it, it goes right to our repair department."
It’s focused attention Chrystal Woodcock said she is proud to see. She knows every small change could save lives of firefighters just like her husband. That's why she spends time speaking to cadet classes and at symposiums for cancer in fire departments.
"It's not easy to have to relive this over and over. Me, going out and talking to these folks and giving them my perspective, that maybe it will resonate. It's going to take changing the culture to achieve this long-term goal," she said.
The training and dissemination of information are only getting more detailed.
"We had a meeting the other day with some folks with University of Texas Health Science Center that we want to partner with on this," Hood said.
Hood is also working to get every firefighter a second set of gear so they have fresh gear while another is being cleaned. There's money in the budget and they're sizing firefighters right now.
Below are photos of firefighters Danny Vera (top image) and Casey Turk (bottom image), whose lives were also claimed by cancer: