NORFOLK, Neb. -- Firefighters put their lives on the line every day when fighting a fire, dealing with smoke inhalation, etc., but the leading cause of death in the profession is occupational cancer.

As cancer-related numbers grow more alarming, the International Association of Fire Fighters, or the IAFF, has partnered with the Firefighter Cancer Support Network to designate January as Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month.

According to the IAFF, cancer caused 66% of line-of-duty deaths from 2002 to 2019.

Norfolk Fire Chief Tim Wragge says that while efforts may be amped up during this month, their safety efforts are year-round.

"We're very hard on each other about trying to make sure that we're getting out of that dirty equipment as soon as we get back from a scene, trying to get showered up and cleaned up for the next call, and making sure those dirty pieces or gear don't go anywhere our living quarters or kitchen areas," said Wragge.

Wragge says that to keep his staff safe, each firefighter should have two sets of personal protective gear, which is their first line of defense.

As fires today contain more burning toxic materials, having clean gear to switch into is imperative, Wragge said.

If a firefighter only has one set then they are not allowed to go out.

"The two most common routes for those chemicals to enter the body are through breathing and absorption, so every five degrees your skin warms up the absorption rates goes up by 300 percent," Wragge said. "So as you're in all of your gear and your body temperature heats up you're more apt to soak up all those chemicals which is why we want all our staff to wear full personal protective equipment."

Research done by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says that firefighters had a 9% greater chance of receiving a cancer diagnosis than the average American, as well as a 14% greater chance of cancer-related death.

The Norfolk Fire Division annually checks the health of its firefighters in order to catch any health problems early on to avoid such statistics, Wragge said.

"It's worth noting that we do physicals every year, we do a physical upon entry, so we're trying to do our best to make sure that any health issue with our responders is caught early," said Wragge. "If they do have existing health issues we make sure that they're monitored and we're proactive in our approaches to try to make sure that things don't get worse."

Wragge says that despite the national uptick in numbers, he has also seen an uptick in safety amongst firefighters on the fire ground.

He said the Norfolk Fire Division wants to protect themselves as well as the community by taking measures like suspending letting kids try on protective gear as they still may contain toxins.

For more information on Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month, click here.