We know firefighters risk their lives to save others during fires. But something they’re not doing after the flames are out could be putting them in danger.
Uniforms are designed to keep firefighters safe when they run into a fire, but they can become dangerous if they are not cleaned properly.
Scott "Shoe" Schumacher worked the front lines for 19 years as a lieutenant with the Kenosha Fire Department.
Whenever a call came in, he was there. Matthew Haerter was Schumacher's best friend and called him "a go-to professional as well as a go-to friend."
Schumacher loved his family. He shared a similar love to his firefighting career. But in 2015 the 41-year-old lost a 10-year fight against metastatic melanoma cancer-- a skin cancer that spreads through the body.
Schumacher's death was considered work-related and he's not alone. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports firefighters have a significantly higher risk for multiple cancers.
The federal agency found that in addition to inhaling carcinogens those toxins stay on firefighters' uniforms long after they leave the scene.
Researchers at the University of Illinois are running a unique study. They are sending firefighters into staged fires to determine the results of carcinogenic exposure to the skin. It's a way to protect firefighters and help manufacturers develop safer uniforms.
"It was literally the first time it's ever been done in the world," said Haerter.
Haerter became a test subject in the Illinois study. It was his way to honor Schumacher and possibly save a life.
"All of the review boards believed it was too dangerous to place us in the environment that we were going to be tested in, and this is what we do every day," said Haerter.
Firefighters from across the state came to honor Schumacher at his funeral. Joe Knitter was among that procession. South Milwaukee fire chief, Joe Knitter said Schumacher's death hit home.
"It brought a realization that we needed to do more to prevent cancer from the firefighter prevention, "said Knitter.
Knitter worked to enact the cultural changes and new safety practices. The first step was to make sure the uniforms get washed immediately when crews return to the fire station.
"The days of a seasoned, salty, dirty, rough-looking firefighter is a thing of the past. We know the associated risks and hazards with that now," said Knitter.
The 24 firefighters in South Milwaukee have access to an industrial washer and dryer to clean the gear, but that isn't the case in 36 fire houses across Milwaukee.
Cat Zyniecki with the Local 215 Firefighters Auxiliary is on a mission to put washers and dryers in every fire house. Firefighters can quickly wash their undergarments and the hoods worn around their necks.
"We want our husbands and wives to come home every night," said Zyniecki.
Watch more of our interview with Zyniecki below
Research suggests immediate cleaning of the gear and skin makes a difference. Firefighters are now using wipes to clean their skin.
In Milwaukee there are 36 active fire stations. Only three are equipped with basic washers. In order to wash full gear, Milwaukee firefighters must carry the gear to one of four locations equipped with the industrial dryers.
Whether it's becoming a test subject like Matthew Hearter did or raising money to get washers-- the push to keep firefighters healthy is as real as the dangers they face daily. "Ultimately if we save one person from suffering from a diagnosis of cancer, and if it's something we've done then the efforts we put down were worth it," said Knitter.
Wisconsin is one of 36 states with the presumptive disability law. Under this law firefighters who develop cancer can file for disability faster and have the state cover the health bills.
The Local 215 Firefighters Auxiliary is trying to raise $36,000 to buy basic washers. For more information click or tap here. You can also learn more on their Facebook page.
Also, donations can be made at any Associated Bank under the account name "The Auxiliary to?MFD?L215 Safety Initiative".
Checks can also be mailed to:
Auxiliary to Local 215
5625 West Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, WI 53215-4257