Commanding the Response to Cancer in the Fire Service

By Brian F. McQueen, NVFC Executive Committee/Cancer Sub Committee Co-Chair/Occupational Cancer Survivor

I recently participated in a state fire class in my home department, and the instructor wrote a quote on the white board. It said, “We cannot solve the problems of today if we continue to think as we did yesterday, when we created them.” February is National Cancer Prevention Month, and as I think about the epidemic of cancer in the fire service this quote sticks in my mind. While culture change is sometimes looked upon in our stations as “doing away with a hundred years of traditions,” it truly isn’t. Perhaps a more accurate term would be a repositioning of culture, which means the reconstruction of the cultural concepts found in our fire service society of today. We need to build upon the past while creating the future!

Over the past few years, we’ve been educated to the dangers we face in regards to firefighter cancer. We’ve heard it in our stations, at training summits, and in seminars across the United States. Research statistics as well as our own personal experiences seeing our brethren being diagnosed with cancer confirm the risks confronting us as firefighters every day we answer the call. Cancer is one of the leading causes of firefighter deaths, and it doesn’t matter if you are career or volunteer – we all face the same dangers. Cancer has no limitations: veteran, rookie, male, female. We’ve been taught that the dirty, salty-looking firefighter is a thing of the past. Is it?

Our fire service is in the midst of one of the most important cultural changes it has ever seen. One that will dictate the way we do business, and the way that we take care of ourselves on the fireground and at our stations, to reduce the cancer epidemic currently facing members of our profession. Sometimes what we fail to understand is why this change is so important. This culture shift to better protect ourselves from cancer is not about you and me. It’s about the people in our lives that we go home to after every call. It’s about those we leave our dinner table, youth sporting events, or school concerts for. Having been diagnosed with occupational cancer and spending six weeks in New York City away from my family for treatments, I had a profound realization. There is much more to the fire service than the smells, bells, and flames – there’s family. And being there for our family means we have to recondition how we think as firefighters and what we accept as normal. Behaviors such as taking pride in dirty gear or discarding our SCBA before the smoke clears have no place in today’s fire service.

With this in mind, the National Volunteer Fire Council’s (NVFC) Cancer Sub-Committee and the International Association of Fire Chief’s Volunteer Combination Officer’s Section (VCOS), along with their leadership, have been discussing over the past four months the need to develop a joint Multi-Color Ribbon Report that will address not only cancer in the fire service, but this cultural change through 10 specific actions that are key in the prevention of firefighter cancer.

We cannot understand how cancer impacts our boots-on-the-ground firefighters if we continually deny that cancer will ever enter our body. I never understood the cancer issue prior to my diagnosis either. However, when those oncologists looked me in the eye and said, “You have cancer, probably attributed to your job as a volunteer firefighter,” my life changed forever! I now make it my mission to prevent my brothers and sisters from suffering this same outcome.

The Multi-Color Ribbon Report, which will be released this summer, will highlight the 10 best practices that our firefighters and fire service leaders must address in meeting this cancer epidemic. Here is an overview:

  1. Full personal protective equipment (PPE) must be worn throughout the entire incident.
  2. A second hood policy should be in place for all departments.
  3. Wet decontamination is required anytime your gear (helmet, hood, gloves, PPE) may have been exposed to products of combustion or other contaminates.
  4. Exposed areas of the body (neck and face) should be wiped off during rehab; carrying antibacterial wipes on all apparatus is suggested.
  5. Change your clothes and wash them immediately after exposure to products of combustion or other contaminates.
  6. Shower immediately after being exposed to products of combustion or other contaminates.
  7. No bunker gear shall be allowed in areas outside the apparatus floor (i.e. kitchen, sleeping areas, etc.).
  8. Apparatus seats should be cleaned and decontaminated regularly, especially after incidents where passengers were exposed to products of combustion and contaminates.
  9. Removing gear prior to returning to the station is recommended; don’t take contaminated gear home or store/transport in a personal vehicle. NOTE: If transporting gear in a personal vehicle is unavoidable, keep it in a sealed gear bag or container in the trunk or truck bed, outside the vehicle’s cab.
  10. Get an annual physical and report any physiological changes to your physician as early detection is key to survival. The NVFC outlines several options at: www.nvfc.org.

In closing, we must all realize that fires of today look the same as they did 20 and 30 years ago. However, statistics have shown that fires of today have larger amounts of toxic chemicals due to changes in our furniture and construction materials. Our brother and sister firefighters are dying and we are realizing that these deaths are related to these exposures to toxic chemicals in the fires we fight. Yet we all have it in our power to take actions to protect ourselves, our fellow firefighters, and our families from the ravages of firefighter cancer. There are 3 types of firefighters: Those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what just happened. Let me ask you, which one are you?