The risks firefighters take go beyond what they do on the clock. The job means they’re more likely to have a heart attack and get cancer.
What they don’t know is why. New research is trying to answer that question and one widow of a fallen Rockford firefighter is eagerly awaiting the answer.
These are the faces of fallen firefighters in Rockford. Three people who died in the line of duty but not while fighting fires.
“He loved fighting fires. And I would always say to him come home in one piece. I know you have to save people but just come back home,” said Lawanda Freeman.
Terrance Freeman always came back home safe from his job as a Rockford firefighter. His wife Lawanda knew he put his life on the line every day at work. What she didn’t know was the fires weren’t the only thing she needed to worry about.
“He came in and took his shoes off. He kissed me, he kissed Torrence and then Torrence pulled his hand to maybe walk six steps to play. As they got up there, I got up and walked to the bathroom and by the time I made it to the bathroom I heard a thump and he fell,” said Lawanda.
Roughly an hour after fighting a fire, Terrance collapsed. Lawanda called 911.
“They got there and they began to work on him and everything and I knew then that he wasn’t coming back,” she said with tears in her eyes.
On November 22, 2009, Terrance died of a heart attack. He was 37.
“He was healthy he was in good shape he worked out, boy did we work out,” said Lawanda.
But Terrance isn’t the only young, seemingly healthy Rockford firefighter to suddenly die of a heart attack. In 2004 the department lost Kevin McIntyre, who also suffered a massive heart attack at home.
“It’s like you’re losing a family member, especially when they’re active members and they’re seen as active, very healthy,” said Chief Derek Bergsten with the Rockford Fire Department.
The reality is the number one killer of firefighters isn’t the fires they fight. It’s heart attacks
“Firefighters have an increased risk of cancer and heart attacks over and above the rest of the population,” said John Drengenberg with Underwriters Laboratories.
Cancer has also plagued the Rockford Fire Department, taking the life of LT. Kelli Ingardona in 2010. She was just 45. Untimely deaths are fueling a new study. Researchers from Underwriters Laboratories in Northrbook Illinois, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the University of Illinois in Champaign are on a mission to find out why firefighters are 100 times more likely to have a heart attack, and 200 percent more likely to get cancer.
“This research is the first time it’s been done. It’s groundbreaking research,” said Drengenberg.
Over the course of a month, real firefighters are put to the test doing their job. But it’s not their skills being tested. It’s their bodies.
“We’re having them put out a fire and then we’re having them compare their temperature, their heart rate, skin swabs things of that type to see just what might have changed,” said Drengenberg.
It’s an extensive test, which means it needs extensive help. 17 fire departments, 36 firefighters and dozens of researchers are part of it. One of those researchers is from Freeport.
“I have a lot of friends and family in Freeport, a lot of relatives and if we can bring anything back that improves our department a little bit,” said Richard Kesler, a research scientist on the study. “If we can make just a one percent difference anywhere, then it’s totally worth everything we do.”
13 WREX was invited to watch the test from the start with a controlled burn. As soon as the firefighters job is done, it’s into the lab for testing.
“On the human, we’re really trying to look at how the chemical exposures are getting into the breath, the blood and the urine,” said Denise Smith, a research scientist with the Illinois Fire Service Institute.
One of the firefighters part of this study is Matthew Haerter, a battalion chief for the City of Kenosha. He recently lost a close friend and fellow firefighter to cancer fueling his decision to join this study.
“It was a no brainer for me, I was very, very excited and I cannot possibly express how amazing this research is,” said Haerter.
He’s swabbed, poked and prodded for a good 20 minutes. And he’ll be monitored for the next 12 hours. There are plenty of theories as to why firefighters face serious health consequences. During a fire, chemicals from burning materials can fill a structure quickly. But that’s not new information, and firefighters have taken steps to protect themselves from those chemicals.
“Firefighters have long known that they need to protect their respiratory airway, and hence they wear their turnout gear. But now we’re beginning to realize that dermal exposures also carry health risk,” said Smith.
“Heart attacks could be the result of anything from high blood pressure to other bodily situations. And the fact is everything you encounter in a fire could impact on the heart attack rate. Our hope is we can lower both the cancer risk and the heart attack risk,” said Drengenberg.
Whatever answers the research shows won’t come in time for Terrance Freeman, Kevin McIntyre or Kelli Ingardona. But they’re still answers Lawanda Freeman wants to know.
“Hopefully this research will come up with something that will help the guys because I’m a firefighters wife for life, so I support them 100%. I will always support Rockford Fire. They supported me, they still support me,” she said. “We lost a good man November 22, 2009, a wonderful man.”
Her hope is with this research, no firefighters’ wives will ever have to lose another man like him again.
UL plans to publish the findings of this research in September. Rockford Fire says until then its firefighters are taking more precautions. They’re not allowed to take their masks off after a fire until they get an all clear and they’re required to clean their turnout gear regularly.