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Fighting presumptive illnesses within the firefighting community

"Whenever there is a death, whether it's to a retired member, or it's to a current member, or there's something like this that occurs, it affects all of us."

BOISE, Idaho — Every day, firefighters put their lives at risk. They risk their lives when they run into burning buildings without knowing what hazards lie ahead, but they also risk getting diagnosed with a presumptive illness.

The Boise Fire Department (BFD) is now mourning the loss of one of its own; possibly for that very reason.

"Kent Gilbertson was a firefighter for Boise Fire Department for 16 years. He retired from us in 2018," Brad Bolen, assistant fire chief for BFD said.

Kent Gilbertson recently passed away from colon cancer. It is a type of cancer considered to be presumptive, meaning the illness is presumed to have come from a work environment — like working within the fire department. 

Another added risk in a profession already laden with dangerous possibilities.

During his time at the department, Bolen said he has witnessed some of his fellow brothers and sisters go through that same experience.

"Within the last six months in our fire department, we've had two retirees who have passed away from cancer and one most recently diagnosed with cancer," Bolen said. "Whenever there is a death, whether it's to a retired member, or it's to a current member, or there's something like this that occurs, it affects all of us. There are hazards to the job. Obviously, we feel for the family, but we also mourn and grieve as a family. And too often people are retiring, and they're not enjoying retirement, because they'll have an illness occur or there'll be something that was work-related."

Is there anything being done to help prevent this?

Bolen said every time a firefighter is potentially exposed to toxins, they track it. That way, if a firefighter does get diagnosed with an illness, they can tie it back to the work environment or something in that person's work history during their fire service.

"With the work environment, it's presumed that you are going to be exposed to hazardous materials," Bolen said. "We have a robust decontamination process. We also have annual physicals where we pre-screen for cancer."

Battalion Chief for the Eagle Fire Department and President of the Professional Firefighters of Idaho, Rob Shoplock said legislation was passed with this very issue in mind in 2016.

"Since passing the legislation in 2016. We've really expanded the pre-employment screenings, the annual physicals, and then making sure that we are doing things like making sure that we have a second set of turnouts," Shoplock said. "So once we returned from a call, we're not putting the same gear on that's contaminated because so much of the toxins are absorbed through the skin."

He added that the legislation took more than a decade to pass.

"We're never going to eliminate cancer from the fire department," said Shoplock. "But what we can do is take steps to make sure that our employees are healthy, and they stay healthy through that career, so they get a chance to serve their public for that 20, 25, 30-year career."

The GoFundMe link for Kent's family and funeral costs can be found here.

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