The grim statistics don’t lie: 68% of all firefighters develop cancer. These heroes use their education and training to assess dangerous situations and make split decisions that save lives, but are we overlooking critical education that could save theirs?
To the average person, firefighters are protagonists in their communities. They are the iconic and heroic figures who protect their family and neighbors from the antagonists–dangerous and potentially deadly fires. As true as this is, there are many other enemies that firefighters are up against which may seem harmless to most people. Hidden dangers include vehicles, interior finishes, furniture, building materials, carpeting and electronics, which are all likely accomplices to a fire. The materials these products are made out of contain chemicals and plastics that emit toxic carcinogens when they burn. Chemicals are dangerous and the statistics are impossible to ignore – 68% of firefighters develop cancer. Some cancer studies additionally note that firefighters are developing far more aggressive types of cancers, such as brain cancers, at a younger age than the general population, which provides further indications that the cancer could be a result of firefighting.”
As we learn more about cancer causing agents and their relationship to fire service exposure, it is also becoming clearer that cleanliness can be a critical factor in the prevention of cancer. This has become a trending topic among many organizations including the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Congressional Fire Services Institute. The Firefighter Cancer Support Network has also recognized this correlation. In their 2013 white paper Taking Action Against Cancer in the Fire Service, they identified 11 immediate actions that a firefighter can take to protect themselves against cancer. One of these actions focused on cleaning personal protective equipment (PPE), gloves, hood and helmet immediately after a fire.
Harmful products can enter the body in four ways: inhalation, adsorption, absorption and ingestion. Cleaning protective gear helps to eliminate the opportunity for carcinogens to enter the body through these routes. The most penetrable piece of personal protective equipment is the hood. Hoods are designed to protect the head and neck from heat but are not designed to stop skin absorption through the forehead, angle of the jaw, neck and throat. Beyond examining the risks that the hood presents, each department should examine the risks that their various personal gear may pose.
Cleanliness goes beyond the scene of a fire. Even if gear is decontaminated at the scene by washing, there may still be remnants of carcinogens on clothing upon arrival at the station. In layman’s terms, if you can still smell the fire, there are probably potentially harmful items on your clothing, in the cab of the vehicle and on the equipment you used. These findings suggest that fire departments should develop and implement best practices to keep firefighters as safe as possible and prevent as much exposure to carcinogens as they can.
Beyond explaining the risks of cancer and telling firefighters to clean their gear, what can departments do to ensure that firefighters are properly trained to clean their gear and limit risks? How can leaders be sure that the training is actually retained and utilized? One suggestion is the use of cognitive learning, which is the function-based learning that controls how a person processes information, including problem-solving, memory retention and the perception of learned material.
Cognitive learning presents an effective method to understand the situation and prevention techniques for cancer exposure by cleaning gear. Cognitive learning starts with paying attention to what is happening; in this case the personal protective equipment gets dirty from fire products, smoke, etc. This is obvious from the soot and related products of combustion that adhere to the gear. By training firefighters in the classroom that this “dirt” is potentially harmful, the memory is now available for the firefighter to understand they should clean the material to prevent further exposure. Thus, educating firefighters of the dangers that unclean gear poses is a vital step in the process.
The final step of the cognitive learning process is the encoding of information. The use of Standard Operating Guidelines (SOG), is the most effective way to accomplish encrypting the information. SOGs provide guidance on what can/should be done to clean your personal protective equipment. Using an SOG and requiring gear cleanings after every event uses the cognitive learning process to make gear cleaning second nature. A sample SOG is provided as a baseline to use to create an effective SOG for your organization, thus helping your department to develop the best practice to suit your needs. Once an SOG is developed, it must be communicated to staff, staff must be trained in the process and staff should be supervised to assure they meet the intent of the SOG and enforce compliance when personnel fail to clean their gear.
The link between firefighting, exposure to carcinogens and cancer in firefighters is very real. Preventive measures must be implemented and training should be provided in a way that encourages retention and application of the information. Let’s help our community heroes fight both visible and invisible threats – fire and cancer.
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