Special Report: Fresno Fire adds new health program to combat cancer rates

FRESNO, Calif. - They have a job like no other in the world. Firefighters put their lives on the line each day. They are also exposed to smoke and the toxins in that smoke that make them three times more likely to eventually be diagnosed with cancer than the general public.

Now Fresno City Fire Department is taking steps to make sure their firefighters have access to a unique health program.

Many work places have physical fitness or health programs to help their employees but this one is specially designed for firefighters. The goal is to help catch health issues before they become life threatening.

Fresno City Fireman Dan O'meara thought he was fireproof.

"I was 35 years old. Best shape of my life, great job, amazing family. I was at the tip of happiness," he said.

Until he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2005 after eight years on the job. His whole world came crashing down.

"My thoughts? Am I going to survive this? Am I going to see my kids? What's going to happen with my wife? Am I going to live?" he said.

O'meara's annual physical through the fire department detected the cancer. He says that appointment saved his life.

"I had no signs, no symptoms, and the only way we caught it was due to my physical," he said.

Now the husband and father of two is 12 years cancer free.

Fresno City Fire Department offered annual physicals before the recession, but after budget cuts in 2008, they were cut.

That was until this past fall when the department and the city brought in Pinnacle Fitness to host voluntary physical testings and workouts for the first time in eight years.

Over 90 percent of the fire department participated.

"Since physicals were taken away from us this program was going to be able to come in and be able to prevent illness and some of the long term injuries," said Fresno City Fire Department Health and Wellness Captain Brad Dandridge.

Dandridge said fire fighters in the U.S. are three times as likely to develop a type of cancer than the general public.

"Sixty eight percent of firefighters are going to quire some sort of cancer. Unfortunately it's not surprising. Twenty two percent of the general public will acquire a form of cancer. For many reasons especially from the many airborne toxins they're exposed to. The smoke and the products of combustion like the hydrogen cyanide and the smoke itself," said Dandridge.

Fresno City Fire Department Public Information Officer Hector Vasquez says the number of calls in the Central Valley adds to the issue.

"Last year we ran a total of 43,890 calls which is huge. That is a 3.6% increase from the previous year. We are one of the busiest not only in California, but in the country. We are getting busier and our guys are getting beat up," he said.

Fresno City Fire Chief Kerri Donis says Pinnacles' baseline testing and new training is an investment.

"You think of that wear and tear over and over again on someone's body for years and years. You have to do everything you can to give them the tools to train to understand their body to be successful," she said.

Something Pinnacle Fitness Vice President Felicia Gomez echoes.

"There is beginning to be a culture shift. They're becoming more aware of their health, their nutrition, and the importance of exercise. They're athletes," she said.

O'meara now teaches younger firefighters how important it is to stay healthy and to always get a physical.

"It's one of, if not, the most important things you can do to take care of our body. If we can find out what we have right now it's so much easier to take care of it if we catch it," he said.


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