Firefighters explore cancer preventing benefits from sauna therapy

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - The Madison Fire Department has installed an infrared sauna into its new station 14 helping firefighters sweat out dangerous carcinogens which can sometimes cause cancer.

Kevin Hembrook has worked for the Madison Fire Department for nineteen years. He serves on the Fire Fighters Local 311 Health and Safety committee.

“Probably just in the last couple years I've really been conscious of what the job that I do can do to my health,” said Hembrook.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health performed a multi-year study which found firefighters have a nine percent greater risk at being diagnosed with cancer and a 14 percent risk of a cancer related death.

Hembrook says statistics like these are what spurred him to explore options for cancer-prevention.

“We just didn’t know about it five or ten years ago, we just didn’t know what we were coming in contact with,” he added. “It used to be cardiac arrest was the leading cause of firefighter deaths and that's been taken over by cancer now in the last couple of years.”

While he loves being a firefighter, Hembrook says he loves his job as a father and husband too.

“I mean I’m going to do whatever it takes to help that because I want to be around for my family,” he said.

For some time, Hembrook has gone to Jenerate Wellness in Waunakee for a one-hour session in an infrared sauna. Though his research, Hembrook learned there were benefits to sweating out the toxins and cancer-causing carcinogens.

Jen Rudis, the owner of the business, has welcomed firefighters to her business for years. She provides them a discount for a sweat-session

“They all want to be healthier,” Rudis said. “They want to be fit for not just their job but for their families and for the longevity of their life.”
Sometimes he spends time in the sauna thinking; other times he stretches or does exercises.

“It just feels like you got a good workout in, but you didn’t really work out,” Hembrook said.

Rudis says an infrared sauna is vastly different than a traditional one you might find at the gym or a wellness spa.

“Infrared is about heating up the body, taking it down, decompressing their body and their muscles to take a break,” said Rudis. The Madison Fire Department has seen the value in sauna therapy and has installed one in the new Station 14. They have plans to install another sauna donated by Jenerate Wellness at another Madison fire station.

Madison Fire Chief Steve Davis says he’s noticed a change in firefighters since he first started.

“When I came on 30 years ago, you kept your gear dirty because it showed you were a worker, you kept your helmet all smoky and burnt up because it showed that you went into fires,” Davis said. “We don't see that anymore.”

Davis says it’s been a positive change for the department.

“We have young people that want to protect their bodies and their well-being for a long time,” he said.

Hembrook agrees.

“Now if you have dirty gear and you have soot on your face you look like you're the dumbest out there,” said Hembrook. “I think the older generation of firefighters, the smoke breathers and that if they could do it all over again, they would do it the safer way.”

Sauna therapy does come with some controversy.

The International Organization of Firefighters Union doesn’t recommend sauna therapy for a few reasons. In part, the union found sauna use immediately after a fire can cause dehydration and do more harm than good.

Chief Davis says the policy for Madison firefighters would be waiting a certain amount of time after fighting a fire to use an infrared sauna.

“There is a benefit though to bring sauna therapy into that recovery period,” Davis said. “We think there’s a middle ground here.

Another benefit is a renewed emphasis on mental health, which is something Station 14 was designed with in mind.

He believes the risk of cancer is too great not to try something new.

“If we don't invest in this technology, we feel like we're leaving one of the cards out of the deck,” Davis said.

As for Hembrook, he intends to continue his sauna use so he can keep working as a firefighter.

“We do our job because we love what we do. We love helping people we love giving back and we do it, we risk our lives to do that and we're risking our health to do that as well.”

Station 14 will have its Grand Opening on Friday at 1:00pm.