LIVERMORE (KPIX) — Alameda County firefighters were treated to a free shave as part of a fundraising event with a deadly-serious purpose.

In the 1800s, firefighters actually believed having a thick mustache made their job safer.

“Firefighters back in the day would have mustaches that would help them to absorb some of the smoke when they went into the fires,” explained Brian Centoni, with the Alameda County Fire Dept. “Did that actually work? I don’t know if it worked, I’d have to ask my grandfather,” he added.

To be clear, it didn’t work. These days, firefighters have modern breathing devices to protect themselves from the smoke. But even with that, smoke inhalation is still considered the most dangerous part of the job.

“We have a 250 percent more likelihood of contracting cancer due to our line of work than someone who doesn’t work in our line of work. So this is something that’s very important to us,” said Josh Leinas with the Alameda County Firefighters Union, local 55.

That’s where “Movember” (short for mustache November) comes in.

Alameda County firefighters grew mustaches last month and, on Sunday at the Livermore Barber Shop, they shaved in an event to raise money for the American Cancer Society.

The effort began four years ago because of what happened to firefighter Alex Mengell who, in 2016, was diagnosed with Stage 2 brain cancer.

Mengell had successful surgery and treatment and has been cancer-free ever since but his experience hit home with his fellow firefighters, who have embraced new efforts to protect themselves from the danger of breathing in all that smoke.

“For us it was kind of a wholesale change after I was diagnosed as people started wearing their air-packs, or SCBA, more during the overhaul phase, which is the cleanup,” Mengell explained, “because that’s a lot of where the toxins still come out.”

Just as their mustaches have passed into history, so does the outdated notion that firefighters should be proud to be called “smoke eaters.”

Mengell is convinced that his cancer experience has saved other firefighters’ lives by convincing them to take the danger more seriously.

The “Movember” fundraiser is organized by the Alameda County firefighters’ union and is expected to raise about $5,000 for the American Cancer Society.

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