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Executive Officer Leadership: Firefighters and the Cancer Threat


Occupational cancer among firefighters is on the rise at a rate that is far above the norms for the general population. Reports compiled by the Firefighter Cancer Support Network shows that firefighters are 2.2 times more likely to develop occupational cancer.

Just consider the atmospheres we enter, we are confronted with multiple carcinogens as the result of incomplete combustion. These carcinogens are absorbed into our bodies via multiple vectors. Studies have shown that for every 5-degree increase in skin temperature, the absorption rate is increased 400%.

Fire departments like Boston as well as Palm Beach County and Miami Dade in Florida are on the cutting edge of conducting research that will have a profound effect on the fire service. Cancer screening for Palm Beach County and Miami Dade Fire Departments is being conduct by the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center in South Florida. This study and research is funded by a $1 million grant from the state of Florida.

Erin Kobetz, PhD, MPH, associate Director of the Sylvester Cancer Center, is heading up the project to gather and study the data about occupational cancer in firefighters. “Our goal is to learn exactly where the increased exposures to carcinogens takes place and then to implement proven measures to reduce the risk,” she said. “We will be training firefighters as researchers who will help us collect the data and work with us on the education and early detection of this interdisciplinary project.”

Studies like the one being conducted by the Sylvester Comprehensive Center will take time. The problem is here now; it lurks on every fire we respond to. So what can we do now to reduce our risks?

  • Use SCBAs from the initial fire attack until overhaul is completed. Even post air monitoring, off-gassing is producing toxic gases.
  • Use wipes to remove as much soot as possible as soon as possible, especially from the head, neck, jaw throat and hands.
  • Conduct gross-field decontamination of all bunker gear and SCBAs.
  • Develop a hood exchange program.
  • Wash cloths upon return to the station as well as your bunker gear and hood.
  • Shower thoroughly after every fire.
  • Don’t use tobacco products.
  • Most importantly, have annual medical screening; early detection and early treatment is key to increasing survival.

Our fire apparatus are designed so we doff our bunker gear and store it in the jump-seat area. Our gear is still off-gassing. I would like to see fire apparatus manufactures, and even the NFPA 1901 committee, establish design parameters for a compartment to store dirty bunker gear where the off-gassing is vented out of the truck instead of around the firefighters. The additional cost is well worth the long-term health and safety of our firefighters.

In February 2017, a bill was introduced by Reps. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) and Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) in the U.S. House of Representatives to establish a National Voluntary Firefighter Cancer Registry. If passed and signed into law by President Trump, this registry will be developed and managed by the Center for Disease Control to improve the nationwide monitoring of cancer among firefighters.

“We need a broader understanding of the trends associated with why, how and when our firefighters are contracting this life threating disease. Establishing a national registry is the first step to building a data base where health experts can study the factors associated with cancer diagnoses in the firefighting community,” according to Rep. Hanna.

This requires a culture change in the fire service: no longer are dirty helmets, dirty bunker gear and the lack of use of SCBA a badge of honor. The “salty look” must be gone.

As fire chiefs, it’s our responsibility to provide our members with the tools to protect themselves. This should be in policy and procedures, as well as equipment. We need to ask ourselves, “Are we doing everything possible to protect our firefighters?”

Do our firefighters have two sets of bunker gear? Do we have extractors in our stations? Are we providing annual medical evaluations? Are policy and procedures in place related to exposure reporting and decontamination? And so on.

Have the firefighters been educated on the presumption laws of your state? These standards vary from state to state, with several not having any presumption standards. If that’s the case where you are, are you as the chief or your state chiefs or firefighter associations along with the IAFF working with your legislature for this type of protection? If not, why?

Occupational cancer is killing our firefighter. Young, old, male, female—it doesn’t discriminate. We as fire-service leaders must do everything possible to educate and protect our firefighters.


For more information on the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, visit FireFighterCancerSupport.org.

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