Ohio fire chiefs are taking swift steps to reduce cancer rates among their firefighters, including new procedures for fighting fires and additional safety gear.

The moves come after The Dispatch ran a series detailing the high cancer risk among firefighters and the need for better safety protocols.

In the last month, fire chiefs in Cleveland and Columbus have begun to enact sweeping policies and discuss long-term strategies to protect their firefighters from harmful chemicals and exposures to carcinogens.

In Columbus, Chief Kevin O’Connor began making the changes the day after The Dispatch held a forum to discuss the cancer rates plaguing firefighters. The fire division will now send in two separate units: one to fight a fire and another to do the overhaul, or breakdown and cleanup.

O'Connor is also making it a priority to have gear cleaned right away.

"I want every one of our firefighters to have a long, rich life," he said. "They made the commitment to protect the citizens of Columbus and we want to make sure we are protecting them."

In Cleveland, Chief Angelo Calvillo issued his first written general order calling for firefighters to immediately exchange gear they wear on the fire scene for a clean set. They'll also get time after a fire to decontaminate instead of being put back in service immediately to fight another fire.

"It’s definitely a step in the right direction," said Tim Corcoran, president of Cleveland firefighter’s union.

Earlier this year, Calvillo had rescinded a verbal order that allowed firefighters to take themselves out of service in order to clean themselves and their equipment after a fire. Calvillo was concerned his department would not be able to respond to emergency calls if they did not have enough firefighters in service.

Union officials blasted the move, and the two sides later began working on possible solutions.

Firefighters and their supervisors in Ohio and across the country called for meaningful changes inside and outside the fire service to reduce cancer threats examined in The Dispatch series "Unmasked," which is available online at Dispatch.com/unmasked.

The five-day series detailed the high rate of cancer among firefighters and the struggle within firefighting services to address the issue.

Much of the series chrnoicled the life of Columbus firefighter Mark Rine, 36, a father of five. He has terminal cancer and has saved an uncounted number of other firefighters with his one-man cancer prevention efforts.

Rine has traveled Ohio and beyond during the past three years to warn firefighters of their exposure to carcinogens, such as flame-retardant chemicals, and other toxins released into the air when buildings and vehicles burn.

As part of its reporting, The Dispatch conducted two statewide surveys of professional, full-time firefighters and fire chiefs from across Ohio.

Among the findings: One in 6 of the nearly 1,300 firefighters who responded to the survey said they had been diagnosed with cancer at some point in their careers. About 50 percent said they believed that cancer was their biggest threat on the job.

Nearly 95 percent of the 360 fire chiefs surveyed said that cancer is the greatest occupational threat to their firefighters, but only about half provided cancer-prevention training or had rules in place to reduce the cancer threat.

The lack of nationwide standards to prevent cancer, the lack of money in many communities for proper safety equipment and a lingering macho culture that downplays safety precautions have been the biggest hurdles to change within the fire service, the newspaper found.

Firefighters are at least 14 percent more likely to develop cancer than the general public.

They’re twice as likely to get skin and testicular cancer and mesothelioma — a cancer that grows in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart and is caused by asbestos, according to a 2015 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Sweeping changes to protect firefighters from the cancer threat are not just being made in big city station houses. Some fire chiefs running departments in smaller cities, townships and tiny volunteer departments in rural areas have made or are making real changes that will ultimately help save the lives of their firefighters.

That is the case at the Findlay Fire Department where a visit by Rine last winter had a profound effect on city leaders who weren’t really aware of how deadly cancer had become in the fire service.

Those city officials pledged their financial support to Findlay Chief Joshua Eberle and his 63-member department, and they have kept their word.

Each firefighter in the Findlay department now has two sets of gear. They have started to order and install exhaust removal systems in each of their four station houses and purchased extractor washing machines for two stations to clean gear. A federal grant also will help replace the self-contained breathing apparatus for each firefighter.

Eberle also implemented policy changes, including making the incident commander at each scene responsible for making sure firefighters keep their gear on while responding to fires. Fire trucks are equipped with decontamination buckets that contain wipes, brushes and hoses.

All the cancer prevention efforts are personal in Findlay. One firefighter has died of what’s believed to be occupational cancer and many more have been diagnosed with different forms of the disease.

"We always focus on the dangers of the job being the actual fire or a collapsing building or the past decade it was more of heart attacks," Eberle said. "But the biggest danger to us of all is cancer and it’s not close. The statistics are scary."

The Ohio Bureau of Worker’s Compensation earlier this month awarded $331,000 in grants to 33 departments across Ohio to help buy gear or equipment that reduces the cancer threat.

Columbus received about $12,000 to purchase hoods that firefighters wear under their helmets. National studies have found swapping out hoods for a clean one immediately after fighting a fire greatly reduces exposure to carcinogens.

BWC plans to award $2 million annually to departments across the state to help reduce cancer.

Ben French, an assistant chief at the Pleasant Township Fire Department in Clark County, is one of the many fire chiefs who took advantage of BWC’s grant program to improve their cancer prevention efforts.

The department's grant of $12,805 will allow it to purchase one extractor/washer to clean gear, 25 sets of washable gloves and 25 barrier hoods for the 22 firefighter in their department. Once the new equipment arrives, the department will implement a standard operating procedure for cancer prevention.

"We are all aware of the stuff that is burning now as opposed to 40 years ago and what it can do to us," French said. "It’s all about reducing our risk. We not only want them to go home safely after each shift but also have a happy retirement."