By Kevin Deutsch
The death of Coral Springs-Parkland Fire Department Firefighter/Paramedic James “Nate” Leonard from cancer Wednesday happened during Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month and is helping to spread awareness of risks faced by fire-fighting first responders.
Firefighter occupational cancer is the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths in the fire service, according to government statistics. From 2015 to 2020, 75 percent of all firefighters added to the IAFF Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial died from occupational cancer, according to the International Association of Firefighters.
Leonard, 43, died following a two-year battle with cancer—a line of duty death linked to his 15 years of service with the department, officials announced Wednesday. His job-related cancer entitles his survivors to special benefits.
“FL’s firefighters are the backbone of our communities and, while we have come a long way in helping these heroes if they face cancer, there is still more work to be done,” State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis wrote on Twitter Wednesday. “We must continue to raise awareness in this fight and ensure they know we have their back.”
In 2016, Coral Springs firefighter Paul “Pauly” Pietrafesa died at age 48 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was a 12-year-veteran of the department.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says firefighters can be exposed to hundreds of different chemicals in the form of gases, vapors, and particulates while battling flames.
Some of those chemical substances are known or suspected to cause cancer. Some are byproducts of combustion or burning, such as benzene and formaldehyde. Others come from the materials burning or in the fire debris, such as asbestos from older structures.
Firefighters can come into contact with chemicals by breathing them in, getting them on their skin or in their eyes, or ingesting them. In recent years, fire departments have focused more on cleaning and decontaminating equipment after responding to incidents, which can help decrease cancer risks.
A multi-year study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health released in 2010 found firefighters have a nine percent greater chance of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14 percent greater chance of dying from cancer than the general U.S. population.
In 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation granting certain benefits to Florida firefighters diagnosed with cancer and classifying the disease as an on-the-job injury.
Leonard, the most recent cancer casualty among firefighters in the state, died peacefully surrounded by his family, according to the fire department.
Born in Leavenworth, Kansas, he pursued his dream of becoming a firefighter/paramedic after graduating from the Coral Springs Regional Institute for Public Safety and completing his EMT certification from the Florida Medical Training Institute, according to a press release issued by the City of Coral Springs.
He became a member of the CSPFD on April 9, 2007. Throughout his career, he earned numerous accolades, including a Unit Citation, three Lifesaving Commendations, and a Meritorious Duty Commendation, according to the department.
He most recently served at the department’s Station 95.
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- Kevin Deutsch is an award-winning crime journalist and author. A graduate of Florida International University, Kevin has worked on staff at The Miami Herald, New York Daily News, and The Palm Beach Post.
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