How to slow firefighter cancer for $30

Keeping firefighters and carcinogens separated takes a plan, discipline and some pocket change; here's how to do it


One of my early mentors was my uncle, Lt. Frank Carville from Cincinnati's Ladder 16. Uncle Frank and my aunt Charlotte had two daughters in an era when women had not yet broken the fire service barrier. So, in a way, he mentored me as if I were his own son.

He taught me a lot about the fire service. He showed me examples of positive leadership, especially at the company level, and he frequently shared his thoughts on how a fire chief's top priority had to be protecting and supporting his firefighters.

Over the years, I have grown to respect his wisdom even more. If he were alive today, he'd tell me that a fire chief had to be proactive to protect his or her firefighters from the mounting evidence that several cancers are more prevalent in firefighters due to our frequent, if not continuous, exposure to carcinogens in the smoke and products of combustion.

That wisdom is perhaps 40 years old, for you see my Uncle Frank died from a blood disorder while battling cancer what seems like eons ago. Frank lived only three years into his retirement, and was one of those statistics ignored for decades.

Today, we have proof of the correlation between the exposures during firefighting and the incident of cancer in firefighters. It doesn't matter if you are a career, part-time or volunteer firefighter, you are being exposed to this hazard at every fire you attend.

An ongoing study conducted by the National Institute of Safety and Health that began in 2010 has found that firefighters are at a higher risk for site-specific cancers. Among these are cancers of the brain, digestive tract, genitourinary tract, as well as the lympho-hermatopoietic and respiratory systems.

The NIOSH study continues to follow 30,000 current and former firefighters serving in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco for further data. A separate, but also significant study, follows the firefighters from New York City and from across the country who responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11 and the months following.

While there has been speculation for years of a connection between firefighting and an increased incidence of cancer, the NIOSH study confirms this link.

Cancer SOG
The Colerain (Ohio) Township Department of Fire – EMS is one of several departments addressing this issue with new standard operating guidelines written by an ad hoc committee that consisted of members from nearly every rank from chief officers to firefighters.

The SOG requires every firefighter to go through a decontamination process following all working fires.

It also requires that SCBA must be used throughout the extinguishment and overhaul stages of the fire, despite a "safe" carbon monoxide level, to better protect a firefighter's respiratory system. Investigators are allowed to use approved hepa-filter masks and face pieces once the extinguishment and overhaul are completed.

The department has equipped each engine, rescue and ladder company with a decontamination kit so that each firefighter's personal protective equipment (helmet, gloves, hood, coat, pants and boots) will receive gross decontamination before leaving the fire scene.

Any equipment, including spent SCBA bottles and tools, will also receive decontamination before being placed back in service on the apparatus.

Gloves and hoods, which come into direct contact with a firefighter's skin, are exchanged at the scene for clean sets that are carried in the district chief vehicles. The contaminated hoods and gloves are bagged, while the remaining PPE are taken back to the fire station for a second, more thorough decontamination, using a washer/extractor.

Each firefighter is required to shower and change into fresh station clothes.  

Cost of health
This department's goal is to not only reduce the future incidence of cancer in their firefighters, but also to set an example for other fire departments to follow.

For example, they allow automatic-aid partner fire departments to use their equipment for PPE gross decon before leaving the scene.

About now you might be saying, "My department can't do all that; it will cost too much."

Well, let's explore what this two-step decontamination process actually costs. The gross decon kit fits into a 5-gallon pail with a lid like those sold at any big-box home improvement store.

In the kit are clean long-handled brushes, a 10-foot section of garden hose (you can use a reducer for a discharge on your engine company or find a residential outlet on a neighbor's house), ordinary grease-cutting dish soap and a heavy duty stain remover in a spray bottle.

It also has wipes to clean hard-to-wash things such as helmet flaps and suspension and to wipe down firefighters' hands and face.

The total cost of the pail and its contents is approximately $30.

Seeing retirement
Getting contaminated gear to a washer/extractor may be a little more involved. If you don't have one of your own, check around to see which of your neighboring stations has one you can use.

Remember, the Assistance to Firefighters Grants have been pretty generous in supplying these in past years; if you need one, ask for it in the next AFG cycle. Always follow your PPE manufacturer's instructions for decontamination when using the washer/extractor so as to avoid damaging turnout gear.

Individual firefighters can also help avert cancer with a healthy lifestyle, regular exercise, adequate sleep and periodic medical check-ups. Other recommendations may come from your personal physician or your department's medical director.

Cancer is nothing for any of us to fool around with. Almost every week, I hear of another firefighter — many of whom I have served with in one department or another — who is being treated for some form of cancer.

My Uncle Frank would have loved to live the long retirement he deserved and watch me progress in the fire service. We as chiefs, company officers or senior firefighters owe it to ourselves and our newer personnel and their families to set a positive example, and to offer them every protection possible.

It may not be the end all, but that protection from cancer might start today with as little as a $30 investment for a gross decon kit for each of your apparatus and your insistence that decontamination of gear and equipment be mandatory after every working fire.

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