Reducing firefighter cancer risk: How emotionally attached are you?

Apply some simple marriage vows to your use of PPE at a structural fire


Clean turnout gear helps reduce the risk of developing cancer. That statement has become the rallying cry to get firefighters and fire officers to accept that clean gear is non-negotiable. But how many of them truly embrace – emotionally embrace – that clean gear is essential?

You’re probably wondering what emotion has to do with this issue. The answer: Everything.

Emotion trumps logic

Being emotionally committed to your department's PPE policies and standard operating guidelines (SOGs) is like being a good spouse in a marriage: You must be all in 24/7/365.
Being emotionally committed to your department's PPE policies and standard operating guidelines (SOGs) is like being a good spouse in a marriage: You must be all in 24/7/365. (Globe)

Emotion plays a significant role in culture, including fire service culture. It’s a critical component in how many people view themselves, how they view others, or how they think other people view them. All have an emotional component.

We keep saying that there needs to be a cultural change in how firefighters feel about clean gear. Feel is an emotional word. Right now, in most fire departments, I'm guessing that many firefighters and fire officers know and understand the logical (technical) factors related to their PPE after working at a structural fire:

  • Undergoing initial contaminant reduction (ICR), formerly known as gross decon.
  • Managing personal hygiene (e.g., wiping down face, neck, arms) after leaving the ICR area.
  • Bagging PPE and transporting it back to the fire station in compartments on fire apparatus (not in the crew cab).
  • Laundering soiled and contaminated PPE and drying before returning it to service.

But how emotionally invested are firefighters? When they've been released from working in the hazard area, do they immediately head to the ICR area? Or do they still wander over to see their buddies from Engine 39 who they haven't seen since the last job they worked together? Do they engage in personal hygiene before heading to the on-site firefighter rehab area to cool off or warm up and rehydrate?

Being emotionally committed to your department's PPE policies and standard operating guidelines (SOGs) is like being a good spouse in a marriage: You must be all in 24/7/365. And yet, being that good spouse is something most of us don't give much conscious thought to on daily basis.

Why not? Because we're emotionally committed to our spouse on several levels like:

  • For better or for worse
  • For richer or for poorer
  • In sickness and in health
  • Forsaking all others
  • Until death do us part

Develop that kind of commitment

What does this look like for us?

  • For better or for worse. Do what's right, even when it might be inconvenient. That means even when it’s late at night into a long tour of duty or catching an early morning job and it's time to get off.
  • For richer or for poor. Perhaps your fire department isn't flush financially, but it is doing what it can to give you the equipment and supplies needed to keep your PPE clean. Do the best you can with what you have. Period. Don't cut corners because you don't have everything you'd like to have.
  • In sickness and in health. I love a recent commercial for a cold and flu medicine that showed an obviously sick mom looking into her child's bedroom and seeing her child standing in the crib. The tagline is something like “Moms don't get to call in sick! Regardless of how you're feeling, mentally or physically, if you report for duty and you catch a job (a working structure fire), you follow your fire department’s PPE policies and SOGs to the best of your ability – and then some.
  • Forsaking all others. Do what's right, regardless of what others are doing. Have the courage to be the person who models the “new normal” when it comes to taking care of you and your PPE to reduce the risk for developing cancers because of your exposure to the chemicals, chemical compounds, and carcinogens present in the smoke you encounter during interior structural firefighting operations.
  • Until death do us part. Does this really need explanation? You show up, you do the job. All of it – 100% the first day and 100% the last day and every day in between.

Ask yourself

So, how emotionally committed are you to your relationship with your PPE and the other components of your fire department's efforts to reduce your risk of developing cancers on the job?

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