SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - Firefighters are the people who run into a burning building to rescue us. But what if doing exactly that is putting them in danger for major health risks in the future?
Sandy Davis worked for the Shreveport Fire Department for 26 and a half years. Now, instead of battling fires, he is fighting another battle, colon cancer.
"I believe, and I will believe for the balance of my life that mine was a job related exposure," said Davis.
He was first diagnosed in April of 2013. The cancer was so low in his digestive track, doctors said it was basically rectal cancer. Now, he has a permanent colostomy bag.
Davis joined the Shreveport Fire Department in 1978. Back then, the department had personal protective equipment assigned to fire trucks, but they did not enforce wearing the gear.
"We made every car fire, house fire you can imagine, you know, some that we knew had toxic fumes and some you just, everyone of them had toxic fumes if you want to know the truth. So wearing the personal protective equipment until 1987 was - you did it if you wanted to," said Davis.
Davis says he would wear his protective gear occasionally, but not all the time.
"I did from time to time, but not consistently. You know, you think, 'oh it's just a car fire, what can be in that smoke?' Well an awful lot in that smoke, you got all kinds of plastics, vinyls, and rubber and fuel, and everything else," said Davis.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health did a multi-year study to see if fire fighters have a higher risk of getting cancer. The study found that fire fighters are more likely to get multiple different types of cancer, including colon cancer. The study found they are at a slightly higher risk of developing it.
"Durell has cancer, hes going through chemo for the third time. Rick Merril died of a heart attack at about 50 years old maybe, 55 at the most. David Glass has got a blood cancer that he's been dealing with for probably close to 10 years," said Davis. He continued, "that's pretty indicative of the fire service. If you take a picture of 6 people, probably 4 of them are going to have some sort of job related issue, you know, heart, lung, or cancer."
Even though the Shreveport Fire Department now enforces wearing personal protective equipment, or P.P.E. for short, Davis has made it a personal goal to educate all firefighters on the importance of the gear.
Davis explained, "when I was first diagnosed with cancer in 2013, until today, I have never once asked 'why me,' I've always said 'why not me?'"
The gear firefighters are required to wear for their protection weighs about 70 pounds, but Davis says it is worth it.
"I lay no blame on the Shreveport Fire Department what so ever," said Davis.
Davis brought his fight to the Shreveport Fire chiefs, wanting to educate all 600 Shreveport firefighters about their P.P.E's.
"You ain't tough not wearing your P.P.E., it's tough when you got to tell your family those things, and you got to look at them and say, if I'd have worn my - if I'd have worn my P.P.E, could I have prevented this. So, that's tough. It ain't tough not wearing your P.P.E, it's stupid," said Davis.
The fire chiefs are standing behind Davis, the retired Fire Chief of Safety, and are helping him get his message out.
We asked a current firefighter if the other firefighters are wearing their protective gear, "They do for the most part, you see them doing it, it's something you really don't think about much. It's just something you just do," explained John Phelan, a Shreveport Firefighter.
John Phelan is in the younger generation of firefighters with the Shreveport Fire Department. He is teaming up with Davis to get his message out to as many as possible.
"It's so important that that 15-20 minutes after a fire is out, just wearing that P.P.E, although it may be 100 degrees, and you may be hot, and it may be sweaty, all those 30 years that you put into to get your retirement, that's going to be thrown out the window if you've got to go do cancer treatments," said Phelan.
According to Davis, Shreveport firefighters now wear their P.P.E's on average four hours a month.
"I sit for 6 hours every other Monday, I sit longer every other Monday than these guys are wearing their P.P.E's on average every month," said Davis.
In his effort to help, Phelan is filmed Davis' journey through his second round of chemo, and put together a documentary about it.
"He's trying to turn it into a good thing. He's trying to turn this cancer into a positive message and not trying to tell his son to quit the fire department, you could get cancer, too," said Phelan.
"If 40 years from now, I'll be in Heaven then, but if in 40 years from now, some firefighter comes through the pearly gates and he says 'I lived a long life because I heard your message about P.P.E,'" said Davis.
Davis had his last round of chemotherapy on Monday. Davis then has three weeks off before he gets another CT scan to see how this round of treatment went.