PUNTA GORDA — Ryan Hay was already working for years as a coach and teacher when he decided to pursue a new career: firefighter.

“I had buddies who were in it,” said Hay, speaking with a reporter on Tuesday.

Hay completed his training and worked as a firefighter in Orange County for a few years before transferring to Charlotte County 11 years ago.

Working as a firefighter was great work for Hay; waking up in the middle of the night, grabbing his gear, and hopping on the truck, before delving into a structure fire or combatting the spread of a brush fire.

Hay, now a lieutenant with Charlotte County, recalled one incident early in his career. He returned from the call with a solid coating of dirt and smoke residue on his helmet; a sign of the work and effort he had put in on the call. A fellow firefighter polished it clean, as a prank.

Nowadays, a dirty helmet is regarded more as a risk than a badge of honor.

In 2017, Hay said that someone told him about a lump they had noticed on his neck. That same year, he was able to get a screening to see what exactly it was.

Hay was officially diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

“It was scary,” said Hay — less for his own sake, but rather, because he was thinking of his three children.

January is National Firefighter Cancer Awareness and Prevention Month. The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) estimates that firefighters have a 9 percent greater risk of being diagnosed with cancer than the general public — and a 14 percent greater risk of dying from cancer.

“It is the number one cause of firefighter line-of-duty deaths,” read a IAFF training brief shared with The Daily Sun.

Mike Kerns, Hay’s fellow lieutenant, said structure fires represent a unique concern for carcinogens. In particular, newer furniture with more plastic is a notable risk for firefighters exposed to the chemicals released when that plastic burns.

“You never know what’s in there,” said Kerns.

Studies cited by IAFF have noted that flame retardant material often contains chemicals that could result in thyroid and breast cancer if released into the air and absorbed by the body. Examples include polychlorinated biphenyls, a flame retardant used in some older consumer products like light bulbs or floor finish, and “per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances,” a variety of chemicals used as water and stain-repellents in products.

Kerns noted that even brush fires have carcinogen risks, if people leave out things like tires or paint cans in an area that houses the fire.

Even if the calls themselves do not feature anything that poses a risk, firefighters still spend a great deal of time near their fire trucks and its diesel fuel exhaust — yet another source of potential carcinogens.

Groups like IAFF and the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN) have supported new training exercises and mitigation methods to decrease the chances of cancer.

Kerns said Charlotte County firefighters have begun to actively decontaminate and scrub down their equipment after calls. After an initial scrub-down, firefighters will remove their gear and contain it within plastic bags before returning to the station.

“Everything is absorbing,” said Kerns.

The county department will send multiple crews to fires, allowing for firefighters to cycle out of the scene and lessen their exposure to any risk inside the structure or near the fire.

The goal, said Kerns, is “a clean cab and a clean station” — keeping any carcinogen contained at the point of origin or quarantined in a container where it can be scrubbed out later.

Kerns noted that the county has been supportive in maintaining personnel, including volunteers who staff rehab stations for firefighters at the scene. Kerns and Hay also praised the national and state support for firefighter cancer treatment, gaining through lobbying in recent years.

“People dedicate their lives to this,” said Kerns, “to help people they don’t even know.”

Hay was able to seek treatment for his thyroid cancer. He underwent a therapy treatment to suppress the cancer through radioactive treatment followed by isolation. He now undergoes yearly check-ups to see if the cancer is returning, but has been in the clear so far.

“It really makes you think differently,” said Hay.

And yet while Hay says that he is more aware of the threats he faces on the job, he has no regrets about joining up to help others as a firefighter.