How Volunteers Can Fight Cancer in the Fire Service
June 16, 2015
By Timothy Elliott
Clean Gear, Hard Data, and Peer Support Help Save Firefighters and Their Families
Cancer is a leading cause of death for America’s firefighters. Cancer caused 60 percent of line-of-duty deaths for career firefighters between 2002-2014, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters. Unfortunately, there’s very little specific data about cancer among volunteer firefighters. The U.S. Fire Administration's firefighter fatality statistics do not include cancer-related deaths, but it's a stark reality: Firefighting increases cancer risks significanly for EVERY firefighter.
The nonprofit Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN) urges volunteers to take action now by cleaning their gear, collecting their vital data, and asking for help if they do receive a cancer diagnosis.
Clean your gear
Historically, firefighters have worn dirty gear proudly as a symbol of hard-earned firefighting experience. Today we know those soot-covered turnouts, hoods, and helmets are not just dirty – they’re contaminated with carcinogens.
It’s vital for all firefighters to clean their PPE, including their hoods, regularly to reduce their exposure to carcinogens. “When firefighters sweat and their pores open up, soot, which is a group-one carcinogen and a top cancer-causing agent, gets sucked into the body through the skin on their faces, hands, and under their gear,” said cancer researcher Dr. Grace LeMasters.
“The flash hood is one of the most important pieces of PPE we have, yet we often neglect it,” said FCSN President Bryan Frieders, a division chief with the San Gabriel (CA) Fire Department. “The contaminants soaked into the hood continue to be absorbed into our skin. Insisting on clean hoods is one way we’re going to reduce the risk of many cancers associated with firefighting.”
In 2014, FCSN launched its national “Wash Your Hood Sunday” (WYHS) campaign with Honeywell’s support as a simple, powerful tactic to help prevent occupational cancer. If you’d like a new 2015 “Wash Your Hood Sunday” poster, please send your request with preferred shipping address and contact phone number to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Not all stations have dedicated gear washers or extractors. In March, Minerva Bunker Gear Cleaners launched Project Clean Hoods, a new monthly service that delivers clean and sanitized hoods to help firefighters reduce their cancer risk. Minerva pledged five percent of its proceeds from the service to FCSN. For details about Project Clean Hoods, please visit bunkergearcleaners.com.
Here’s another best practice: Keep PPE out of living and sleeping quarters! Contaminated PPE continues to off-gas long after an incident, so consider printing and posting FCSN’s “No Fire Gear Beyond This Point” reminders.
Collect Your Call/Exposure Data
Dozens of detailed studies have revealed the grim truth about firefighters’ increased cancer risks, but volunteer firefighters have not been included in any prior or current U.S. firefighter cancer research.
Such data may seem abstract, but firefighters’ personal call and exposure tracking logs can help make a case that firefighting activities caused their cancer. Detailed personal logs may prove invaluable when it comes to securing workers comp or other benefits following a cancer diagnosis. Firefighters can record their calls in simple notebooks – here’s a sample – and use or adapt toxic-exposure forms such as this one from the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department.
Note: Take personal accountability for your own records. While some departments may keep call and exposure records for members, there’s no guarantee those records will not be lost, damaged, or purged and thus not available when you need them the most. Until U.S. researchers include volunteer firefighters in their occupational cancer studies, it’s up to you to collect your own vital data.
Ask for Help
Since 2005, FCSN has provided assistance and badge-to-badge mentoring for cancer-stricken fire/EMS members and their families. FCSN also delivers firefighter cancer awareness and prevention training nationwide.
If you receive a cancer diagnosis, we can start helping immediately with an FCSN cancer-support toolbox. Our signature toolbox is full of tested, proven resources to help firefighters and their families cope with the cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery phases. We’ll send it to you right away, free of charge.
Next, FCSN offers free badge-to-badge support to fire/EMS members and their immediate families. We have more than 130 peer-support mentors – nearly all are firefighters and paramedics who are cancer survivors themselves. Many of our mentors started their relationship with FCSN by seeking assistance for themselves. Now they’re giving back by helping others through the process.
If you receive a cancer diagnosis, please call our toll-free number – 1-866-994-FCSN (3276) – or go to www.firefightercancersupport.org/request-assistance. One call or one click of a “send” button is all it takes to rally your brother and sister firefighters.
FCSN’s 2013 white paper, “Taking Action Against Cancer in the Fire Service,” provides additional lifesaving details about recognizing and reducing firefighters’ cancer risks. Here’s an excerpt with all 11 immediate actions firefighters should take to help protect themselves, their families, and their fellow firefighters. The full paper is available as a free download from http://bit.ly/1eTPF4m.
Timothy Elliott is VP of communication for the Firefighter Cancer Support Network. He is the former communication director for the International Association of Fire Chiefs.