Protecting Your Firefighters’ Physical Health

Posted on January 31, 2024

January is Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month, a time to shine a spotlight on the critical issue of increased cancer risk among firefighters, along with the importance of effective safety and preventive measures to reduce exposure to cancer-causing carcinogens.

It’s no secret that firefighters face many health and safety risks in their line of work, which is why it’s of the utmost importance for both the fire services industry and individual departments to do everything in their power to keep their firefighters safe.

One of the biggest long-term risks for firefighters is cancer. A multi-year study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that firefighters had a 9% increase in diagnoses and a 14% increase in cancer-related deaths over the entire U.S. population. While the statistics are alarming, there are ways to mitigate these risks.

What can departments do?

Firstly, prevention is key. Educate and train your firefighters on proper decontamination procedures and enforce the use of PPE throughout the duration of each incident. Afterwards, ensure the complete removal of contaminants through effective cleaning methods, such as wet-soap decontamination and commercial wipes. You should also proactively provide annual physicals and cancer screenings for your entire department.

According to a recent study from ESO, decontamination procedures were only documented in 82% of all working fires incidents, and out of those exposures, only 4%  documented all on-scene decontamination procedures. This leaves significant room for improvement. Documenting any and all decontamination is incredibly important, because it allows departments to keep tabs on firefighters that have experienced the most exposures and provide additional healthcare monitoring and increased screening for early cancer detection.

What can the industry do?

By tracking and documenting exposures of firefighters on a national level, we can analyze data to better understand the risks that firefighters are taking. Sharing your own department’s health and exposure data with organizations such as the National Firefighter Registry can help researchers study exposures and their correlating illnesses. This research can help to create better informed best practices, legislation, and guidelines, while also helping to innovate and advance firefighting equipment, suppression tools, and construction materials.

The focus on firefighter health extends beyond January– it’s a year-round priority. Implementing tools like ESO Insights allows fire departments to monitor and document decontamination exposure, helping them take proactive measures to protect their crew’s health.

For more insights that help keep your firefighters safe, download the ESO Fire Index today, or request a copy of the full ESO firefighter decontamination study here.