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Boston Fire Department targets health of firefighters

The Boston Fire Department is vowing to tackle cancer and other health issues in the force with the purchase of protective gear, the creation of a wellness division, and the help of former Navy SEALs to get firefighters back to better form.

“There’s a lot of excitement around this division because the firefighters feel for the first time in a long time the city administration and the department’s management team genuinely care about their well being,’’ Fire Commissioner Joseph E. Finn said Tuesday.

Finn outlined his health initiative to the City Council’s Ways and Means Committee, which is reviewing the mayor’s $2.86 billion proposed fiscal plan.

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The Fire Department, with a budget of $214 million, is the city’s fourth-largest agency, with 1,612 employees.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Finn presented a budget that encapsulates his vision for the department. He came into office promising to change the department’s culture, saying he would work to improve efficiency and boost morale. He began by restructuring the management team, curbing rampant shift swapping, and making employee health a priority.

Among the commissioner’s main targets: cancer. He said that the city’s firefighters are 2½ times more likely to be afflicted with the disease than other city employees. Since 1990, Finn said, more than 150 Boston firefighters have died of cancer. At least four are now battling the disease, he said.

Finn said many reasons are to blame, including carcinogens that become embedded in gear and exposure to toxins.

The department has budgeted $3 million to buy high-tech air tanks and masks that firefighters can wear for longer periods. The older masks can be worn for 30 minutes at a time; the new masks can be worn for 45 minutes, fire officials said.

The department is also adding industrial-sized machines at five firehouses to remove carcinogens from clothing.

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In addition, the department hired 02X, a company of former Navy SEALs who have trained 40 firefighters on nutrition, fitness, and how to best take care of themselves. Finn is hoping the company can train another 40 firefighters.

The Fire Department’s initiatives are included in Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s $2.86 billion budget, which was submitted to the council last month. The Fire Department’s budget is expected to increase by 4.5 percent under Walsh’s fiscal plan.

The budget provides money for a new diversity recruiter to boost dwindling ranks of people of color on the force.

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com.