The growing concerns over cancer are prompting Missoula's stair-climbing firefighters to dramatically change their approach to the annual Seattle Stairclimb.

The Missoula Fire Department team is still expected to be very competitive at the annual fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society this weekend. But for the first time in their long history of participation, the Missoula firefighters will join other teams in dropping their gear.

Climbing in only basic equipment, and dropping their full "turnouts" is in direct reaction to the growing concern over the carcinogens in fire jackets and pants that has become a major issue in fire departments in Montana, and across the country.

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Cancer is a big topic in firehouses now

In recent years, studies have shown how firefighters were being exposed to toxic chemicals released onto their gear in the heat and fire. That's already led to extensive contamination procedures.

But last year, a study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology found "PFAS" chemicals, known as per- and polyfluoroalky substances, used in firefighters' protective thermal clothing are presenting an elevated cancer risk.

Dennis Bragg photo
Dennis Bragg photo

MFD Stairclimb leader Andy Drobeck says it's one thing to need the gear in a fire. But exercising in turnouts is a problem.

"There's a risk of thermal injury when we're when we're working. But we don't want to be training in our turn-out gear," Drobeck tells me. "Exercising in our turn gear, doing that event, like the stair climbing if we don't have to".

READ MORE: Missoula firefighters face tougher competition at annual Stairclimb

Two divisions in 2024

So this year, the Stairclimb organizers are using two categories, one for full turnouts for firefighters who want that challenge, and a second requiring climbers to just have helmets and their SCBAs, or self-contained breathing apparatus.

It's really a big push from the International Union to try to create gear that's safe for firefighters and we don't we don't want cancer to be a part of our job," Drobeck explains. "We want to mitigate it as much as possible."

Dennis Bragg photo
Dennis Bragg photo

Change might convince more to climb

Drobeck believes the change might convince more firefighters to participate with two divisions. The Missoula team has already been training in the lighter gear and we'll find out whether they can dominate the new category during the climb Sunday morning.

Looking Back at One of Montana's Most Explosive Fires

The 2013 Lolo Creek Fire burned within 6 miles of Missoula

Gallery Credit: Dennis Bragg

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