Knowledge is Power: Be Proactive in Protecting Yourself from Firefighter Cancer

By Darlene Gurnett
Reprinted from the NVFC Firefighter Strong newsletter

All through my childhood, I remember the old plextron monitor going off when there was a fire or EMS call. My father was a 45-year member of the fire service when he passed away and my mother was very involved in the Ladies Auxiliary until she passed away. Growing up in a small rural town in western New York, what else was there to do but volunteer at the local firehouse where your parents, older brother, and friends belonged?

As rich as my family history is within the fire service, it is also wrought with cancer diagnoses. Even so, I never really thought cancer would strike me. Then I began a long struggle with female reproductive health issues that are still difficult for me to talk about. These included several bouts with a precancerous condition as well as severe endometrial hyperplasia where cancer was not ruled out. I ended up having a hysterectomy followed by weeks of radiation therapy to kill off the remaining cells left behind.

In 2015, the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York asked me to participate in a video about cancer in the fire service. I was reluctant as my long road with reproductive health issues was a private and personal journey for me. I did the interview, but I wasn’t really convinced my issues had a direct correlation with the fire service. However, since then I have had another journey, and this is one I would
like to share.

On August 24, 2012, I was in the grocery store checkout line with my two sons when my pager went off for a field fire in the Iroquois Wildlife Management area. Like many volunteer fire companies, staffing is limited during the day. I finished my checkout, drove the half mile to my house, threw my perishables in the refrigerator, and headed to the scene to assist. It was a warm and sunny day so I was wearing shorts, and I didn’t take the time to grab a pair of pants. However, I had an extra pair of socks in my gear bag for emergencies like this when I am wearing sandals or flip flops!

When we arrived on-scene I put on all my proper PPE for the field fire and went to work. My kids were so excited that they could sit safely at Incident Command and watch Mom, who was a Fire Rescue Captain, in action. It was dry marsh that was burning, containing a plethora of cat tails. We had a slight breeze that day, and that did not help us. What started as a small fire grew to burn 11 acres. We spent the rest of the day there as we wanted to make sure we completely put the fire out and didn’t get called back later.

During the call I felt a burning sensation on my right inner calf, which I suspected was from my boot rubbing on my leg and sweating with all my gear on. When we got back to the firehouse and I removed my gear, I found it was rubbed raw and oozing. I had a darn good case of “boot burn.” I didn’t go to a doctor. Instead I washed it out when I got home and “doctored” it for a week or two with Neosporin and gauze pads. Once it scabbed over and healed, I didn’t think of it again….

UNTIL, April 18, 2016, when I went to my dermatologist’s office for my yearly skin check. The doctor found a suspicious spot and had a 3mm-round, medium-dark maculae with darker-brown pigment removed from my right calf. The cancer was in the exact same spot I had experienced the “boot burn” four years prior.

With all the talk about cancer in the fire service, washing of all gear is a must. We throw our bunker pants, coat, and hoods in the washer or send them out for cleaning. But what about our boots and helmets? I mentioned this at my own fire station and they laughed, insisting “I wear my gear the right way, I don’t wear my boots inside out.” Well, I wear my PPE the correct way too, but dirt, debris, smoke, and particles travel. When we get back to the station and place our bunker pants with our boots in our locker, where do we hang our coats? Most stations I see they hang over top the boots.

Did you ever look inside your boots after a fire call or after a year of wearing them to calls? Is it clean or dirty? Perhaps you wash your helmet off on the outside, but did you ever think of cleaning the inside? You wear it inside a fire one day with your hood on, and then next day you’re placing the same helmet on your head for an automobile accident.

We have to think in advance. Do I have clean equipment, not only on the outside but inside also? Am I dressed properly under my gear, with socks, pants, and (for the guys) shirt, even in the dead of summer? The days of “Hey, look how dirty my gear is after that fire” are over.

We have to wear all of our PPE on scenes where there is the potential of coming into contact with carcinogens. Think about how much faster and hotter house fires are now compared to 30 years ago. The materials used to make most everyday products are not simply wood, paper, and metal anymore. So much in our homes is synthetic and manmade materials. We need to wear pants, boots, jackets, hoods, helmets, gloves, and SCBA.

SCBAs are not just for inside before the fire is knocked down. We NEED them during overhaul and for exterior operations as well. During overhaul, all the small particles of debris are still floating in the air and the smoke still rises from hot spots that are smoldering. What about when you open the wall up, whether interior or exterior, and smoke pours out into your face? Do you know what the insulation is made out of? What about when you’re digging through the debris during fire investigation — do you realize how many airborne particles you are stirring up and breathing in?

Getting annual checkups is critical. Early detection of cancer saves lives and can mean less invasive and intensive treatment options. Let your doctor know you are a firefighter and keep track of any exposures you may have had so you can be proactive in monitoring your health.

All these actions may seem cumbersome, but remember, we are trained professionals, and we make sacrifices to protect and serve our communities. We sign up because of loyalty to our communities, the feeling we get when giving back, the adrenaline rush it gives, and, most importantly, the brotherhood of service. Please think about your family and friends when you’re at the scene and back at the hall cleaning your equipment. It may feel daunting to take those few extra minutes to clean your gear thoroughly and wear that pack just a bit longer; however, in the long run you will save your loved ones the heartache and pain of telling them, “I have cancer.”

My cancer journey has been a rough, emotional road that I pray is over. Only time will tell, but I have learned a lot from peers and mentors in the fire service. And as Confucius said, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”

Darlene Gurnett is a fire rescue captain and interior firefighter/EMT with the Wolcottsville (NY) Volunteer Fire Company. She has also served as president and in other leadership roles with the Niagara County Volunteer Fireman’s Association and as a fire investigator with the Niagara County Origin and Cause Team. She is a senior dispatcher in the communications division of the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office.