ST. LOUIS – On Saturday, dozens of first responders from the greater St. Louis metro will climb to the top of the Metropolitan Square Building in downtown St. Louis while carrying 50 to 75 pounds of gear for the American Lung Association in Missouri’s Fight for Air Climb.
The participants hope to raise money and awareness about the diseases impacting their industry.
Despite the heavy protective gear firefighters wear on the job, according to the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), firefighters are still exposed to gases, chemicals, and other substances with potentially damaging short and long-term effects on the respiratory system. This exposure puts firefighters at an increased risk for things like cancer, asthma, and chronic bronchitis.
“The gear is really more thermal protection from the fire, but the smoke can penetrate through, and even after the fire, there’s still a lot of exposure,” said Captain Robert Daus, Maryland Heights Fire Protection District. “It can get on our gear and then that gets transferred when we take our gear off, it gets on our hands. When you’re sweating, your pores are open so the smoke can get in that way.”
This will be the fourth time firefighter Hector Chaidez of the Glen Carbon Fire Department will participate in the challenge. This year, Chaidez and his team will be climbing in honor of a fellow Glen Carbon firefighter who recently battled and beat lung cancer.
“I’m very humbled to tell him that I’m doing this for him,” Chaidez said. “It brings a little bit more pride into what we’re doing.”
Many departments and districts, including the Maryland Heights Fire Protection District, are changing the way firefighters decontaminate after working a scene, Daus said. Still, studies show, the job is becoming even more dangerous.
“The way that houses are built is different than before,” said Daus. “A lot of synthetic, manmade materials so everything burns hotter.”
To prepare for the 40-flight climb, firefighters train while wearing the critical protective gear including the full suit, boots, helmet, mask and air pack.
Firefighters with the Glen Carbon Fire Department are all volunteers, so Chaidez said they meet in between shifts at the firehouse, their other jobs and spending time with their families to work out. Chaidez makes time to train by climbing the steps at Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville, Illinois. He knows from experience the importance of training to be able to make it up 856 steps.
“When you get to the middle of the steps, you start thinking if you can make it,” he said.
In the moments of doubt, he thinks about fellow firefighters who have battled or are battling lung diseases and looks at the inspirational posters and photos of survivors lining the stairwell, and he remembers what he is fighting for.
“It motivates you to keep on going,” Chaidez said.