MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WBTW) — Fire departments in the Myrtle Beach area are receiving new equipment and gear to help prevent exposure to cancer-causing toxins.

Over the past 17 years, 66% of firefighter deaths have been cancer related, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Departments in the area said in the past several years they’ve received more education on it and have made changes.

“We’ve done more studies in cancer, we realized those particulates and things in the smoke, those things that are burning are getting in under the coat and the pants and are getting on our bodies,” Jonathan Evans, the deputy marshal with Myrtle Beach Fire, said.

Evans said “It used to be that you were the baddest firefighter if your gear was all dirty, your helmets all dirty that kind of stuff. That meant you were working hard and no one could tell you anything. Nowadays, we realized all those things, because of what’s burning can cause cancer.”

Lt. James Vreeland with the North Myrtle Beach Fire Service said the environment they fight fires in has changed over the years and has led to a dramatic increase in cancer cases in firefighters as items have switched from being made from wood to being made from plastic and synthetics.

“Back in the old days, when we used to fight fire, we used to enjoy being covered in the soot and looking dirty as possible because it made you look like a working firefighter,” he said. “Now, immediately after we’re coming out of fires, we’re being washed down with hoses. When we get back to the stations we have wipes that are specifically made to counteract carcinogens.”  

Vreeland was diagnosed last year with Stage 3 throat cancer. He said it could happen to anyone.

“It came as quite a surprise,” he said. “I’ve been very physically active, worked out my entire life, considered myself in great shape, but it’s one of those things that they deal with in the fire service.”

Myrtle Beach Fire Department, North Myrtle Beach Department of Public Safety, Midway Fire Rescue and Horry County Fire Rescue are just some of the fire departments in the area that have made recent changes to prevent firefighter cancer.

Along with using decontamination wipes or “decon” wipes immediately after battling a fire, some departments are receiving new gear to help prevent cancer causing toxins from touching the skin.

“This particular gear fits a little tighter in the waist, in the arms, and things,” Evans said. “Anywhere that has this red band. It fits a little tighter than the older gear did so it’s a little bit hotter and tighter for us to get on but on the other hand it does keep all those things off.”

He said the Myrtle Beach Fire Department plans to have this new gear within the next few weeks for its crews. It recently installed exhaust capture systems at all stations to help filter harmful carcinogens out of the trucks.

“Moving forward our chief, Chief Tanner, and our command center here at HCFR treats that as a top priority for our people to hopefully get more of those big gear extractors into our station where we can always clear our equipment,” said Tony Casey, with Horry County Fire Rescue.

At Midway Fire Rescue, Fire Chief Doug Eggiman said they use decon wipes, gross decontamination showers, and have issued crew two set of gear.

Other departments like North Myrtle Beach Fire Service have done this too, so when one set of gear is in the washer, it has a clean one ready to go.

“We’re getting to the point now where we’re becoming very proactive about cancer and taking care of it, not just talking about it anymore but also taking steps to try and prevent it,” Vreeland said.