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6 things big and small your agency can be doing to prevent cancer

From a simple radio strap or face wipe to a dedicated decontamination unit, every agency can take a step in the right direction


By Laura Neitzel, FireRescue1 BrandFocus staff

The hardest thing to change in the fire service is mindset. But the prevalence of cancer in the fire service has brought needed attention to a very big problem that is not going away anytime soon.

Perhaps, 10 or 15 years down the road, agencies will begin to see whether the efforts they are making now to reduce their firefighters’ risk of cancer are working. They’ll begin to see whether firefighters who are nearing retirement might get to live the life they’ve dreamed of, worked for and risked their lives for. In a decade or two, firefighters might get to see their children get married and have children of their own. Or maybe they’ll be able to turn that woodworking hobby into a second career.

Taking measures to prevent cancer can help ensure that firefighters stay healthy to enjoy their well-earned retirements.
Taking measures to prevent cancer can help ensure that firefighters stay healthy to enjoy their well-earned retirements. (Getty Images)

What happens now will help determine that fate.

The old adage about the fire service remains true: “They hate change and staying the same,” said John Schmidt, division chief of health, safety and wellness with Pasco County Fire Rescue (PCFR) in Florida.

Fortunately, the mindset where traditions rule without bending to the times is beginning to change. Awareness of cancer and the importance of implementing decontamination protocols has percolated into fire departments across the country.

“It’s not just a talking point at conferences. It now is becoming implemented into even slow-moving stations where money is hard to come by,” said Sean Duncan, a 27-year fire service veteran. “With a simple change of equipment and a change of thought process, we can make a big difference with things like thyroid cancer.”

Mindsets are changing

But the reality is that not every department has the resources to invest heavily in cancer prevention efforts. Here are six actions – big and small – that are likely to reduce exposure to carcinogens and make a difference down the road.

1.  Equip every firefighter with a go-bag for on-scene decontamination

Many fire departments are now providing a personal go-kit or go-bag for every firefighter to take on scene. Go-bag components vary by department, but typically may include:

  • Dishwashing soap and a brush for rapid gross decon on turnout gear.
  • On-scene firefighter skin decontamination wipes. The wipes are not standard-issue baby wipes, but textured, industrial-strength towels infused with cleansing compounds specifically designed for firefighters to clean soot, smoke and potential carcinogens off exposed skin, especially around the neck and groin areas. Pro tip: Keep extra decon wipes in an ice chest to get a cooldown while you wipe down.
  • Clean replacement Nomex hood and/or gloves. In case the firefighter must move directly to another call, having an extra set of hoods and gloves gives firefighters a clean start for their face, neck and hands.
  • An extra clean uniform. PCFR deploys a mobile decon tent or two on scene, giving firefighters the opportunity to change out of a dirty uniform before getting in a clean cab. An extra duty uniform is stashed in each firefighter’s go-bag.

2.  Change your radio strap

The radio is a firefighter’s lifeline. It goes on every call ─ potentially a career’s worth of calls ─ and rarely, if ever, gets cleaned. “Those carcinogens are going somewhere,” said Duncan. It rather defeats the purpose of diligently decontaminating gear and the rig if a firefighter then goes on to hang a carcinogen-laden leather radio strap around their neck for the next call. Or, even worse, brings it home.

Homeland Six makes light, comfortable military-grade nylon radio straps and holsters that can stand up to the everyday rigors of firefighting and be extractor-laundered regularly along with turnout gear.

3.  Full sets of replacement gear

For those days where one call leads to another, many fire departments like PCFR are sending a second set of bunker gear to the fire scene. Swapping wet, dirty gear for a fresh helmet, turnout coat and pant, Nomex hood, pair of gloves and boots not only helps get firefighters away from potential carcinogens more quickly – it makes the rest of the shift more comfortable.

“At first they’re hesitant, but once they get that fresh set of gear, they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, it smells good, it’s dry,” said Ronald Borrego, one of the decon techs for PCFR. “It’s really changed a lot of minds.”

4.  Clean gear on site with dedicated personnel

Pasco County FR's Decon1 truck carries an extra set of gear for each firefighter. (Pasco County FR)
Pasco County FR's Decon1 truck carries an extra set of gear for each firefighter. (Pasco County FR) (Pasco County Fire Rescue)

PCFR has a dedicated, specially trained decontamination team that comes on site to decontaminate gear after a fire. Their first truck, Decon 1, carried extra sets of gear so that firefighters could swap into clean gear.

Their new truck, Decon 2, goes one step further and enables them to clean and disinfect firefighter gear before crews get back into the truck in clean duty uniforms. This alleviates cross-contamination not only from fire by-products, but also from bloodborne pathogens.

“We’re also inspecting the gear to make sure everything is where it needs to be and noting any damaged gear that needs to be replaced,” said Schmidt. “The idea is basically, after every incident, they’ll not only have a new or fresh set of bunker gear to put on for the next call they get, but their SCBA, masks, helmets and boots will all be ready to go also.”

While PCFR has made the investment in their own decontamination trucks and dedicated personnel, third-party on-site decontamination units are beginning to be more accessible to departments that want the benefits of on-site decontamination.

5.  Station design that avoids contaminants reaching into the station

If fire leaders are fortunate enough to build a new fire station from the ground up or invest in refurbishing their existing station, there are several design considerations that can reduce exposure to carcinogens.

  • Locate decontamination showers between the bay and the station so crews aren’t bringing contaminants into the station.
  • Install a diesel vehicle exhaust removal system in the apparatus bay to capture exhaust emissions and eliminate this known cancer culprit.

6.  Heavy metal blood testing

On most structural fires, firefighters are exposed to smoke particulates that contain multiple heavy metals, including arsenic, cobalt, chromium, mercury, lead and phosphorous. Additional heavy metal particulates can adhere to turnout gear.

Make sure your physician knows you are a firefighter and that your profession saving others subjects you to an elevated risk of many cancers. PCFR conducts heavy metal blood testing for its decon technicians annually. Even though they are not fighting fires, being around contaminated gear exposes them to heavy metals that are associated with increased risks of cancer. Starting out with a good baseline of heavy metal levels in blood that is monitored annually helps them keep an eye on this risk.

Just do something

“A firefighter’s days off are way more important than their days on the job,” said Schmidt, “and retiring for 20 or 30 years is way more important than anything else.”

If all you can do to reduce cancer risks is decon on-scene with a garden hose and face wipes and swap out the Nomex hoods, start with that, Schmidt encourages.

“Find your budget, find your way, then just do something,” he said. “Doing nothing is not an option.”

Visit Homeland Six for more information on extractor washable radio straps.

Read next: Review: A radio-strap skeptic takes the H6 firefighter radio strap for a spin

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