Interest charge

Firefighter Tony Zee leads the charge against occupational cancer

By Luke Netzley
Deputy Editor of the Pasadena Weekly

FFirefighter Tony Zee joined the Pasadena Fire Department at a crucial time in his life. He had spent the past four years trying to get a job as a firefighter and was about to give up, until he got a letter.

Zee’s dream of becoming a firefighter began when he was a student at Cal State LA when he heard about a fire administration and technology program from friends he was living with in the dorms.

“I was lucky enough to meet the right people and I got interested in it,” Zee said. “It’s my calling and it’s what I want to do.”

Zee joined the Pasadena Fire Department in 2004, but within the first six months of his career he began to experience back pain. He visited his doctor and returned to work with painkillers. After his symptoms continued to worsen, Zee saw an oncologist and was diagnosed with stage 4 bone cancer. He was 27 years old.

“It changed my outlook on this career because at the time, cancer wasn’t the number one killer in the fire service, it was heart disease,” Zee explained. “After going through everything and coming back, I took it upon myself to educate others.”

Cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters today. According to reports, there are over 265 known carcinogens in a typical structural fire. Firefighters are regularly exposed to heat, smoke and toxic substances, such as arsenic, cadmium and asbestos, which put them at high risk of developing cancer. Exposure to these carcinogens can occur during fire response and even at the station when contaminants accumulate on used gear.

January is Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month.

“We had a horrible way of doing business with cancer,” Zee said. “Before, we wore what we call turnouts, the yellow gear that we wear in fires, all the time. And we didn’t know that we have to clean these things regularly, especially when we go to fire environments. Often back then, the dirtier you looked, the more of a veteran you were. It showed your status, like, ‘Oh, wow, this guy’s helmet is burnt. We will follow this person. This is no longer the case. »

The rate of absorption by the human body increases nearly 400% for every five degree increase in skin temperature, so chronic heat exposure puts firefighters at even greater risk of absorbing carcinogens from a smoky environment. That’s why firefighters are 14% more likely to die of cancer than the general US population.

After his own battle with cancer, Zee decided to return to the Pasadena Fire Department, where he was greeted with overwhelming love and support.

“If you get into firefighting, it’s a passion you have and you won’t let anything stop you,” Zee said. “You don’t want to leave this family. You want to be there for the next person it happens to because it will happen to someone else. One in three people will develop cancer during their career.

Although working in and around fire and smoke always poses a risk, there are measures that are becoming widely adopted in fire departments across the country to minimize the threat of developing cancer. .

These measures include wearing a mask in any smoky, uphill or windy environment after arriving on an incident, washing equipment thoroughly after use, packing all tools and equipment contaminated by fire for external cleaning, the application of cleaning wipes to decontaminate the skin, the installation of filtered ventilation systems throughout the station, ensuring that the fuel used by the service is both safe and renewable, and regularly reporting all personal exposures, a key step in ensuring proof that occupational exposure was the cause of cancer if it occurred.

“It’s all about documentation now,” Zee said. “Cancer is now presumptive in the fire service, but presumptive doesn’t mean that after you develop it, wherever you work, say they’re going to cover it up. We still have to prove we got it on the job, so we have a system that we use where you can enter exhibits into a computer and they’re stored for your entire career. And if you show that to the city or even a lawyer, they can’t fight it.

The importance of exposure reporting is just one of the many lessons Zee now teaches as a mentor. For the past 8 years, he has traveled to different fire departments and academies to share precautions firefighters can take to reduce their exposure to carcinogens.

“I really hope we can turn it around, like all heart conditions that firefighters have had to deal with,” Zee said. “It only happened because of awareness. Heart disease became less of a problem because people started eating better and exercising more, so it’s just a matter of time. We have so much support from our unions, our families and all the fire schools. Even our equipment is changing to better protect us. It’s going to happen, I’m very confident of that.

Zee continues to educate and guide others to adopt new cancer prevention protocols and lead the charge by raising awareness of the risks posed to firefighters in Pasadena and beyond. To learn more about occupational cancer and to help support firefighters who have been affected, visit the Firefighter Cancer Support Network at

Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month

WHEN: Every January