NVFC Holds Roundtable on Cancer Awareness and Prevention in the Volunteer Fire Service

Roundtable participants (l-r) Brian McQueen, Cindy Ell, Dave Finger, Trey Kelso, Jacqueline Moline, and Rick Mason.

Roundtable participants (l-r) Brian McQueen, Cindy Ell, Dave Finger, Trey Kelso, Jacqueline Moline, and Rick Mason.

The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) held a special roundtable during its spring meeting on May 6 focusing on cancer awareness and prevention in the volunteer fire service. The event was streamed live online for those who could not attend. Remote participants could ask questions via an online tool.

The roundtable featured experts in different aspects of firefighter cancer research, prevention, and support. Participants included: Chief Brian McQueen (moderator), cancer survivor and founder of the Believe 271 Foundation Inc.; Cindy Ell, Founder/President of the International Firefighter Cancer Foundation; Dave Finger, Chief of Legislative and Regulatory Affairs for the NVFC; Chief Trey Kelso, Firefighter Cancer Support Network board member; Rick Mason, Training and Education Coordinator for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation; and Dr. Jacqueline Moline, founder of the world Trade Center Medical Program. View full bios here.

The recorded version of the roundtable is now available on the NVFC web site. Below is a summary of the information presented during the roundtable.

Question: What was the biggest issue with getting cancer presumption laws passed in states where it has passed?

Answer: Connecticut just passed a state cancer presumption law, and the largest pushback they received was from government groups who were looking at it from a financial perspective. The Connecticut law will be funded by receiving one penny from the E-9-1-1 surcharge that appears on each resident’s phone bill. The state’s fire service organizations had to fight hard to get the bill passed. It still doesn’t have everything they wanted, but it is a good starting point.

Question: What are the barriers to providing cancer prevention education in state training programs?

Answer: Many state training programs have to follow certain certification requirements, and these can’t be cut back. There is a lot of resistance when you try to add even one additional hour of training to a curriculum that may already be 200 hours. Trainers need to figure out a way to incorporate cancer prevention and awareness messages within the existing training. On the positive side, IFSTA has started incorporating cancer prevention into their textbooks, and the National Fire Protection Association is working to include language addressing cancer prevention practices into their 1001 standard.

Question: Is anyone addressing the issue of hazardous environments at training academies?

Answer: Gear extractors and dryers should be a critical piece to get the gear ready for each class. Gear should be decontaminated based on the manufacturer’s guidelines. The ability to wash and dry rapidly is key. Gear should also be properly stored. With training, there are also significant cost considerations. As a fire service community, we need to work with the corporate world to come up with new technology that makes proper decontamination of gear affordable. Also, everyone should be practicing the 11 immediate actions provided in the Firefighter Cancer Support Network’s white paper. There is also the issue of the instructors being put in a hazardous environment day after day. There may be some simple managerial changes that can have a big impact.

Question: Would there ever be a push for a national law to provide benefits to firefighters and retirees who are diagnosed with cancer?

Answer: Yes, and the NVFC is on record supporting this type of law. Also, the Public Safety Officers’ Benefit program has recently determined a way to move forward with addressing deaths from 9/11 exposure.

Question: What should we be focusing on to disseminate to our personnel in terms of gross decontamination practices?

Answer: Gear and equipment need to be routinely cleaned so they don’t create continued exposure. Fire academies are great opportunity for showing new recruits how to properly decontaminate gear. People are often very concrete in what they think of as an exposure. However, it’s not just during the fire. It’s also during the overhaul phase, what gets on the gear, how quickly one can get the gear off, and making sure nothing remains on the gear. We need to minimize the exposure at every level in addition to using PPE properly while in the heat. Often the exposure risk is at a great level right after a fire. We absorb toxins through our skin, so we need to get these off of us as soon as we can both on and off the scene.

Also take into consideration contaminating factors at the station. Simple things can make a huge difference, such as washing your hands before using the bathroom, using wipes to clean your face after being at the station, and finding ways to minimize dangers such as diesel exhaust.

Question: Are the cancers firefighters are at risk for the same across the nation, or do certain regions have higher rates of different types of cancers? For example, are the cancers the same in the west as in New York?

Answer: Rather than thinking regionally, you need to think about the different types of fires. For instance, risks may be different in wildland fires versus a car fire versus a building fire. Consider the types and components of the fires. Building standards are probably not that different regionally. One of the challenges is that there aren’t many national studies on firefighter cancer; most of the studies have been conducted in cities. It is especially hard to get information on cancer in volunteer firefighters as they may not be reporting ‘firefighter’ as their occupation. Establishing a national cancer registry (as currently proposed in Congress) will be a good step towards getting information, but it won’t be the full answer.

Question: What, if anything is being done currently to remove, or at the very least reduce, the cancer-causing agents in home furnishings as well as building materials currently used?

Answer: There are a handful of states that have laws that prohibit certain types of chemicals or materials in furniture or clothing. However, firefighters have to take it for granted that when you go in you are at risk. Always wear all of your PPE regardless.

Question: How do we go about requiring physicals for volunteers?

Answer: Funding is a challenge. Try working with local hospitals to provide physicals at either no charge or at a reduced rate. Training academies may also have access to help fund physicals for those taking the training classes.