EUGENE, Ore. --When Bob Ritchey decided to become a firefighter, he knew what he was getting into: a risky job with obvious dangers.
What he didn't know was that along with the flames he’d be battling a different sort of crisis, one less obvious than the heat.
“They didn't think of it as an epidemic like they do now,” Ritchey said.
He's talking about cancer, which is now the leading cause of death among firefighters, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters. It’s also something Ritchey knows all about.
“In 2015 I was diagnosed with testicular cancer,” he said. “I was 43 years old."
As a captain with the Eugene Springfield Fire Department, Ritchey has no doubt his career is what led to his cancer.
“I can think of over the course of my career many incidents and many exposures that I had to different chemicals, different fires, different hazardous materials,” he said. “I feel like it's bona fide that it's actually, at least in part, because of my job."
Ritchey caught his cancer early and after surgery and treatment he was back to work in three months.
The one thing he didn't have to worry about is money.
That's because in 2009 Oregon joined dozens of other states by passing a law that pays worker's comp to firefighters who have one of 12 types of cancers.
In fact, Ritchey was the first firefighter in the Eugene Springfield Fire Department to take advantage of the law.
Today his focus is on helping others. That's why he's a mentor for the National Firefighter Cancer Support Network.
“For me I just want to be a good resource,” he said. “I want to be a friend to people. I want to be that person they can just talk to."
It also means being a leader in the department when it comes to promoting a clean and safe work environment, one that minimizes the exposure to carcinogens.
“I definitely think about it in the sense of trying to be safe, be clean, and to prevent unnecessary exposure,” Ritchey said.
Ritchey says he loves his job, but when it’s time to retire he wants to be healthy enough to enjoy it.
“It's a dangerous job and we know that,” he said, “but we shouldn't have to be putting ourselves at risk unnecessarily so that we get cancer.”