By: Jen Russon
When Paul Pietrafesa, a driver for Coral Springs-Parkland Fire Department was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, his wife Karen said she was glad he and their family had done everything they always wanted to do, and that they had lived every day like it was their last.
“Cancer doesn’t discriminate. It’s not a race, a male, or a female that’s going to get it more. It’s going to impact everybody,” said Karen in a video produced by her late husband’s colleagues.
Unfortunately, some are more likely than others to develop deadly cancer, especially firefighters.
According to research conducted by the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, male firefighters are at an increased risk for testicular and prostate cancers and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Female firefighters are more likely to develop a range of cancers, most commonly cervical.
In “Our Story,” Senior Videographer Ryan Himmel documents what the department is doing to make their work environment safer behind the scenes with Chief Frank Babinec, and Safety Officer Christopher Bator. It picked up an Emmy at the 43rd Annual Suncoast Regional Emmy Awards this month.
Pride in their achievement is bittersweet as some of their fellow firefighters, interviewed in the documentary, have been diagnosed with a litany of cancers.
“We now know just by being firefighters, we’re more likely to get cancer just by the job that we do,” said Bator.
His colleague, Assistant Chief John Whalen concurred, stating they all started to realize these cases weren’t isolated incidences, and that there was probably a reason behind them.
But the department did more than speculate. They turned fear into action.
Before their driver Paul Pietrafesa succumbed to terminal cancer in 2016, the late firefighter served on the committee that helped design the first clean cab truck.
“The committee came up with the idea to take all of the gear and equipment that goes into a hazardous environment out of the cab of the truck, and into the body of the vehicle, so that it’s away from the firefighters,” said Fire Chief Frank Babinec.
Keith Tyson, firefighter and vice president of the education and cancer support network, has further described efforts to curb exposure to carcinogens, including providing each firefighter with two sets of gear, moving the ice machines out of the truck stalls and redesigning stations.
The documentary makes clear a side benefit to these new policies and procedures is a reduction in back, knee, and ankle injuries, and that efforts made to reduce carcinogenic exposure did not increase overall response times.
The eight-minute-long Emmy-winning video was honored at a live, nationally broadcast event at the Hyatt Regency in Orlando, and highlights the more subtle sacrifices true heroes in firefighting make every time they’re on call.