June 28, 2016
By Chief Joe Maruca
Reprinted with permission from the Winter 2016 issue of Smoke Showin’
Cancer is killing firefighters at two and three times the rate it kills civilians. We are just beginning to realize this. Every fire you go to is HAZMAT. Toxic chemicals, hundreds of different kinds, are being absorbed into your body, ingested and inhaled. Cancer is probably killing more firefighters than all other causes combined; we’ve just never realized it and we haven’t been measuring it. You need to start protecting yourself now. Chiefs and fire officers need to start protecting their firefighters now.
In October I attended three different meetings where the issue of cancer in the fire service was addressed. I attended the Firefighter Safety Symposium at the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy where about two hours was dedicated to this topic. At the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) meeting in North Carolina there were at least two sessions on the topic, and at the NFPA Responder Forum in Indianapolis, a morning was devoted to cancer related issues. The problem of cancer in the fire service is very real.
The smoke and soot coming from today’s fires is loaded with toxic chemicals. These chemicals are getting all over your personal protective equipment (PPE). Your PPE is tracking these chemicals into your apparatus, your fire station, your personal cars and trucks, and even your homes. If you are storing PPE in your car you are contaminating your car.
If you are wearing dirty PPE, you are contaminating your body. If you are hanging dirty PPE in the fire station, you are contaminating the fire station.
Your hood does not stop your skin from absorbing toxic chemicals. Wearing a dirty hood around your neck concentrates toxins around your neck and they are absorbed into your skin. The skin around your neck is particularly susceptible to absorption. The higher the temperature the more your skin absorbs. Toxic gas penetrates your PPE where your pants and boots meet, at the cuffs of your gloves, and under your hood. You are breathing toxic chemicals during overhaul if you aren’t wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). You are ingesting toxins if you don’t wash your hands before eating in rehab.
Here’s what you need to do starting now:
- Wash your PPE at least once a year and after each working fire.
- Decontaminate your PPE at the fire scene with a hose line. Get as much smoke and soot off it before you climb into the cab of your truck to return to quarters.
- Wash the seats and interior of your apparatus cabs regularly. It is important to remove contaminants from the seats and other cab surfaces. Think about how much time you spend driving around in a potentially contaminated cab.
- Have two hoods. After a fire switch to the clean hood and wash the dirty hood. Departments should issue two hoods to each firefighter. The early data says that hoods may be a big part of the problem.
- Rinse off your helmet liner and gloves after each use.
- Don’t remove your SCBA until the fire is cold and there is no smoke or steam. Don’t use your four gas meter to declare it safe to remove SCBA because this meter doesn’t detect most of the toxic chemicals that are off gassing from the ashes of the fire.
- When you go to rehab or are picking up after the fire, don’t wear your hood around your neck. Take it off. The hood is concentrating toxins into your skin.
- Wash your hands when you go to rehab and when you get back to the fire station before you handle any food. This way you avoid ingesting toxins.
- Take a hot shower as soon as possible after a fire. The hotter the water the better. The hot water opens your pores and allows the water to clear the toxins.
- Workout soon after each fire. A workout helps your body cleanse itself of toxins.
- Never take dirty PPE into your home.
- Avoid wearing PPE in the living quarters of your fire station. You don’t want to contaminate kitchens, sleeping areas, and furniture.
- If you carry PPE in your car, make sure it is in a closed gear bag. Put it in your trunk or the back of your pickup truck. Keep it as far out of the passenger area as you can. Departments that have their staff carry PPE in their cars should provide gear bags as standard issue equipment.
The fire service institutions are taking this cancer risk seriously. The NVFC passed two resolutions at its fall meeting, one urges fire departments to provide firefighters with two hoods and the other urges departments to provide gear bags if call/volunteer firefighters carry their PPE.
You should consult NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Firefighting and Proximity Firefighting, for the best ways to clean and decontaminate your PPE. You can read NFPA 1851 without having to purchase it at www.nfpa.org. (All NFPA standards are available for free reading at the NFPA web site.)
If you’re a chief, issue a new standard operating guideline based upon the above actions and make sure your firefighters are protected. If you are a firefighter, don’t wait for your department to issue a new standard operating guideline, start protecting yourself now. You don’t need special permission or training to take these actions.
Joe Maruca is Chief of the West Barnstable Fire Department, a combination fire department on Cape Cod. He served as a volunteer firefighter from 1977 until becoming chief in 2005. He is the Legislative Committee Chair for the Massachusetts Call/Volunteer Firefighters’ Association, a Director on the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), and represents the NVFC on the NFPA 1917 Technical Committee. Joe is a retired attorney and Of Counsel to the Crowell Law Office in Yarmouthport, MA, concentrating in the area of estate planning.