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Decontaminate, Detect & Do it Again – Your Survival Pathway

One of the most significant threats to your survival of the fire service is occupational carcinogen exposure and contracting cancer. Research has shown that firefighters have elevated occupation cancer occurrence than the rest of the populace. Much work has, and is, being done to mitigate our risks.  

  • Improvements to stations, equipment, and apparatuses 
  • Adherence to “on-air” respiratory protections throughout toxic environmental exposure
  • Lifestyle and behavior modification
  • Maintaining a healthy weight, moderate alcohol consumption, proper nutrition, regular exercise, healthy sleep, hygiene, and use of sunscreen  

All these lifestyle choices aid in mitigating your cancer risk. Perhaps two of the most substantial personal actions and responsibilities you can commit to today that will significantly reduce your occupational exposure and guard against a devasting late-stage cancer battle are:  

  • Proper and early decontamination and,
  • Annual occupationally appropriate medical exams for early detection  

The body has physiological responses to the heat and extremes of firefighting such as the significant opening of your skin’s pores and elevated body temperature, heart, and respiratory rates, all allowing for extremely fast absorption rates of carcinogens into your body and circulatory systems. The quicker we can remove any carcinogenic materials from our bodies, the less chance it has to be absorbed into our bodies.  

Showering as and cleaning your gears – bagging it if possible until you clean it – should be done as quickly as possible.  The reality is, treating your carcinogenic exposure as a “time-dependent” health risk, reduces the absorption of carcinogenic materials—hence be your own advocate!  

The second vital step you can take is to yearly occupational appropriate medical exams annually. The most preventable killers of firefighters are occupational cardiovascular events, cancer, and behavioral health diseases, all which are detectable with appropriate early detection modalities. We know that particularly with cancer, detection at the earliest of stages before spreading past the primary site affords the highest level of treatment success, survival, and return to the fire service. Yet, surveys conducted by the IAFC have demonstrated as many as 20% of career firefighters, and a significant percentage of volunteer firefighters do not receive annual medical exams. The takeaway message is “get checked”! 

Many preventative screening recommendations are based on general population studies and not specific to the unique occupational health risk you face as a firefighter. It is essential that your health provider be familiar with NFPA 1582: Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments. To assist in educating clinicians, the IAFC Safety, Health and Survival Section (SHSS), with FEMA grant funding support, developed the Health Care Providers Guide to Firefighter Physicals. The guide provides clinicians a brief overview of specific occupational health risks of firefighters and while incorporating NFPA 1582 and offers clinical testing considerations.  

Don’t let yourself become a statistic. As has been said, “what is predictable, is preventable,” but it requires personal accountability from yourself and as fire service leaders to put these practices in place as routine for your personnel.  

Chief LeDuc retired as assistant fire chief of Broward County, Florida after 30 years of service. He now serves as Chief Strategy Officer for Life Wellness Centers, one of the nation’s largest providers of comprehensively integrated NFPA physicals. He is also Secretary of the Safety, Health & Survival Section of the IAFC where he has served for well over a decade. 

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