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When talking about reducing cancer in firefighters, where is CAFS?

Detailing how CAFS helps reduce exposure to chemicals, chemical compounds, and carcinogens during interior structural firefighting


Photo/Monument (N.M.) Volunteer Fire Department

Firefighters develop several cancers at rates higher than those in the public. Naturally, the fire service has focused more attention in recent years on reducing firefighter exposure to the chemicals, chemical compounds, and carcinogens present in the smoke of today’s interior structural firefighting. Advice typically centers on these recommended actions:

  • Engaging in initial contaminant reduction after exiting the hot zone.
  • Using personal wipes on face, neck, forearms after the removal of their SCBA and PPE.
  • Bagging contaminated PPE and SCBA for transport back to fire station for cleaning.
  • Showering upon return to the station.
  • Changing uniform/clothing after showering.
  • Cleaning the interior of the fire apparatus cab.

While these are certainly all good measures, they’re reactive in nature. What’s missing is how we can proactively reduce the exposure level to firefighters during the actual suppression operations.

The role of compressed air foam systems (CAFS)

One answer: Use compressed air foam for fire suppression. Why? Let’s look at how CAFS helps reduce exposure to chemicals, chemical compounds, and carcinogens during interior structural firefighting.

CAFS maximizes the efficacy of water. Roughly 90% of the water from your hose stream hits the floor after passing through the room’s atmosphere, and that includes the water that hits the target. Only about 10% of the water is penetrating the fuel to absorb heat and cool the fuel below the temperature needed for sustained burning – and the production of the nasty cancer-causing stuff. The longer a fire burns and smolders after knockdown, the longer firefighters inside the structure are being exposed to cancer causing agents.

Take a Class A foam concentrate, combine it with water and add compressed air, and you have CAFS, a fire extinguishing agent that is greater than the sum of its parts. The synergistic effect is a product with greatly reduced surface tension compared to that of plain water, which enables the solution to penetrate burning fuels faster and more efficiently, thereby stopping the production of those chemicals, chemical compounds, and carcinogens.

Just as important is the reduction of heat. A bonus is that the surfactant in the CAFS fire stream creates a thin film that sticks to wall surfaces and the target fuel where it continues to absorb heat. Even the CAFS solution that winds up on the floor absorbs heat 20 times more efficiently than plain water.

CAFS reduces the impact of cancer-causing “bad actors.” The surfactant in the CAFS fire stream is chemically attractive to the carbon molecule contained in smoke. Every molecule of the CAFS solution that meets smoke binds to a molecule of carbon.

That last point is critical, knowing what we now know about the connection between the chemicals, chemical compounds, and carcinogens that are present in the smoke of today’s structure and the increased cancer risk for firefighters as compared to the general population. It only makes sense that the sooner we make the “generator” of those “bad actors” (i.e., the fire) ineffective, the sooner we start reducing the risk to firefighters.

“The sooner firefighters start applying CAFS to a fire, the sooner they start mitigating that risk to themselves and the downwind civilian population,” said Mark Cummins, man who invented CAFS in 1976. (Cummins once held the patent for CAFS in just about every English-speaking country; those patents have expired, and now anyone can manufacture a CAFS system.)

Let’s not forget that as the fire continues burning and producing smoke and fire gases, those contaminants are being carried downwind, creating exposure risk to the civilian population. And it’s not just the airborne hazard that we must be concerned about; there’s also the water run-off. The longer the fire burns and more water is used to extinguish the fire, more contaminated water – water that contains who knows what number of chemicals, chemical compounds, and carcinogens and in what concentrations – is entering storm drains or surface water (e.g., streams, ponds, rivers, lakes).

The sooner we can reduce the interior temperatures in a compartment and extinguish the fire, the more we can reduce firefighter risk from absorption of those “bad actors” because we get them out of the structure sooner and we keep their skin temperature inside their PPE from increasing. (Remember, for every 5 degree F rise in skin temperature, the absorption rate through the skin increases 400%).

What’s your health worth?

“But CAFS costs too much.” If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. So, what are the annual costs for all those aforementioned reactive approaches to cancer risk reduction? Isn’t it worth the cost to have the one proactive cancer risk reduction tool – CAFS – available to your firefighters and officers?

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.