Cancer in the Fire Service: An Increasing Threat

Volunteer firefighters provide vital services to local communities across the United States; however, the nature of their service puts them at risk for critical health and safety issues. One of the biggest threats facing today’s firefighters is cancer, as studies show firefighters have a higher rate of many types of cancer than the general population. It is imperative that volunteer firefighters take measures to ensure their health by taking necessary safety precautions and visiting their doctors when issues begin to surface.

A Cancer Story

As a volunteer firefighter who takes pride in maintaining a high level of physical fitness, Rick Wise, district fire chief of the Town of Spafford (NY) Fire District, wasn’t overly concerned when he started experiencing severe night sweats in March and April of 2018. Being in Florida at the time, he attributed it to a combination of hot weather and “male menopause.” Without realizing that night sweats could be a symptom of cancer, Wise didn’t think it was necessary to consult a doctor.

However, that October he began experiencing severe back pain due to what he believed to be a herniated disk. A day after what he thought was a routine MRI, he got a call from his doctor requesting that he come into the office to talk. Knowing that such a request often predicates bad news, his wife accompanied him to the doctor’s office where they were informed that he had a tumor on his right kidney, and another tumor had embedded itself on his L3 vertebrae and eaten half way through the bone – this was the cause of his extreme discomfort.

Devastated by what the doctor had told him, Wise and his wife were hopeful that the tumors were benign. They met with an orthopedic surgeon and scheduled surgery for the following week. In the meantime, Wise had more tests with more bad news. He had additional tumors on his lungs, esophagus, pancreas, kidneys, spleen, and stomach. After his surgery, Wise was informed that he had stage four large B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Wise believed this was the beginning of the end. Still, as a veteran police officer and volunteer firefighter with 45 years of experience, he was determined to give cancer a proper battle. His treatment consisted of chemotherapy, spinal tap injections, and extended time in the hospital. Despite the difficult treatments, Wise did his best to stay positive and active as well as maintain his workout routine. Over the course of the next few months, Wise’s body responded remarkably well to treatment, and to his surprise, a PET scan on March 5, 2019, revealed no traces of the disease. He was in remission.

Occupational Risks

Looking back on the experience, Wise believes that an accident that occurred while participating in a firefighter training drill in December 2017 may have played a role in the disease. According to Wise, he slipped over a wall during a bailout drill, causing a collision between him and the wall. He didn’t think anything of it until the skin over his ribs turned black and blue. He got x-rays taken, but the images came back negative.

“After looking at all the evidence, we felt that I must have injured my spleen (which regulates your immune system),” Wise explains. “My immune system bottomed out, which left the door open for the disease to raise its ugly head and grab me.”

Whether or not the training incident played a role in Wise’s disease, it is imperative that firefighters understand that their service puts them at a higher risk for health issues than the general population. Exposures to toxins, heavy exertion during training and response, and other factors specific to the profession make firefighters more vulnerable to certain diseases. Taking extra precautions, such as annual physicals and visiting the doctor at the first sign of symptoms, can make a difference in surviving an aggressive disease. Had Wise decided to dismiss his back pain for an extended period, doctors may not have been able to detect his cancer in time, and the volunteer fire service could have lost an incredibly valuable member of the volunteer fire community.

What You Can Do

Studies have shown that the personal assets that make us comfortable in our homes, when ignited, release toxic, carcinogenic substances. Most of them are manufactured using synthetic materials, and fires are burning hotter, faster, and more toxic as a result. Researchers believe that cancer rates in firefighters are being driven up by chemicals that lace the smoke and soot inside burning buildings.

Specific actions you can take to protect yourself and your crew from exposure to these toxins can be found in the Lavender Ribbon Report, released in 2018 by the National Volunteer Fire Council and the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Volunteer and Combination Officers Section. Download this guide for free at www.nvfc.org/cancer and incorporate the 11 risk reduction best practices into your department’s standard operating procedures.

In addition, here are a few tips to help you protect yourself and mitigate occupational cancer risks:

  • When applying for an Assistance to Firefighters Grant, include washer/dryer and air compressor so that firefighters are able to properly clean their gear following recommended safety standards.
  • Work with lawmakers in your state to establish cancer presumption laws or update existing presumption laws to include all forms of cancer as well as cover both volunteer and career firefighters.
  • Keep a personal log of incidents you respond to, including the incident number, address, unit you’re with, the role you played, and other members of the crew. This will help with identifying potential exposure sources as well as provide documentation needed under cancer presumption laws. FirstForward offers a free online exposure tracking tool you can use at https://info.firstforward.com/exposure-nvfc/.
  • Get regular physicals to monitor health and identify potential concerns. Tell your doctor that you are a volunteer firefighter and provide them with a copy of the IAFC’s Healthcare Provider’s Guide to Firefighter Physicals to let them know of the increased health risks you face.
  • Create department policies and procedures that re-enforce cancer prevention, and make sure these policies are enforced. Incorporate the best practices outlined in the Lavender Ribbon Report.
  • Company officers need to lead by example.
  • Take personal accountability for protecting yourself from exposure, including proper use of PPE.
  • Wash gear after each fire incident.
  • Wash your hood after response. Buy a second hood if needed so that you have one on hand while the other is being washed.
  • Wash your face and hands immediately after response. Use wet wipes to clean your head, neck, jaw, throat, underarms, and hands. Don’t touch any food until you have washed your hands.
  • “Shower within the hour” after responding to a fire scene.