How 1 fire department built a cancer-prevention plan

Fire departments across the country are looking for ways to head off cancer; research and existing plans are out there to copy and modify

There has been a lot of focus on firefighters and cancer in the past five years. Research, while still determining the exact mechanisms and relative risks, indicates that firefighting has been linked to an increased risk of several types of cancers.

So what do we do about it? How can fire departments, leaders and firefighters best move forward in a way that prevents or minimizes risk?

Departments across the country are facing this same question and starting to look for answers.

We know that research has found several possible mechanisms for contamination among firefighters through contaminated gear, inhalation and exposures within the firehouse.

Research also points to several non-fireground factors for firefighters that have been hypothesized to increase cancer risk – factors like shift work, poor diets, lack of fitness, tobacco use and excessive alcohol use, to name a few.

I recently met with Capt. Chris Blankenship of Hilton Head Island (S.C.) Fire Rescue who heads the wellness committee for his department. They were directed by their chief to determine what actions the department should take to be proactive and progressive in cancer prevention.

Capt. Blankenship went back to his committee and they came up with a plan.

Build a plan

First, each member was tasked with specific topics to research. They covered domains such as dispatch, overall administrative issues, maintenance opportunities and general risks of firefighting.

Through internet searches and finding others with expertise in the area, they were able to outline a number of possible avenues for intervention. Some of the most helpful resources they found were the Firefighter Cancer Support Network’s website and resources that outline ways to take immediate prevention actions.  

They also found Washington State’s “Healthy In, Healthy Out” report and videos that outline many steps that can be taken to reduce exposures.

Their search also led them to departments that have developed standard operating guideline and procedures that are shared online. For instance, San Antonio Fire Department has published its cancer prevention guidelines from 2015 online.

As they collect ideas, the Hilton Head Island Fire Rescue wellness committee is compiling a list of ideas and classifying them into three categories of goals for intervention.

  • Short: Easy to implement.
  • Medium: Will be implementable, but will take some time to get resources together.
  • Long-term: Will require long-term planning or securing of future funds.

The real work starts in implementation. Capt. Blankenship anticipates some of the changes being relatively easy to implement, while others that go against the department’s norms and traditions, will likely take more work and time to successfully get buy-in.

He anticipates getting support will focus on educating company officers about the risks and prevention tactics during their monthly meeting so they can lead the charge in enforcing the measures with their crews.

Cancer prevention is not an easy, one-solution project. The practices for prevention are as varied as the exposures firefighters are faced with at any given incident.

The most important thing is to get the ball rolling with your own practices, in your own departments. Whether motivation comes from the top down or the bottom up, prevention is a long-term and evolving process that must start today.

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