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10 Tips to Reduce Firefighter Cancer Risk 

Despite the continuous decline of cancer deaths in the US over the past 20 years, Americans still have a 1-in-3 chance of being diagnosed in their lifetime.  While this is a staggering statistic, the fire service is at an even bigger risk.

According to  NIOSH, compared to the general US population, firefighters are 9% more likely to be diagnosed with cancer and 14% more likely to die from cancer. To combat these exposures and to reduce the risk of cancer in the fire service, here are the top ten things all fire departments and firefighters should do.  

Bill Gardner, Senior Director of Fire Products at ESO.
One of the best ways to reduce the risk of cancer in the fire service is to educate and train your crews from day one. Bill Gardner, CFO, CFE, EMT-P Senior Director of Fire Products

1. Arm  Yourself

close-up of gas masks hanging on a firehouse wall

Wear PPE and SCBA during all firefighting activities, as well as overhaul and salvage. Fires are at their most toxic phase during overhaul when the flames are mostly out. But with the smoke still billowing from smoldering embers, this is a critical time to ensure your mask is on and functioning properly.

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Drill down into PPE basics with your crews and check in with them frequently. Start incorporating PPE best practices into your training drills to ensure all firefighters know and understand the policy on wearing their gear.

Did you know?  Just a 5 degree increase in your skin’s temperature allows for 400% more absorption, so if you’re not fully protecting yourself from exposure, you’re now soaking in  all of  those cancer-causing carcinogens at a mind-blowing rate.

2. Scrub,  Rinse, and Repeat 

two dish scrubbers floating in sink with soapy water

Field decontamination  of your turnout gear  using dish soap, water, a brush and a little elbow grease is critical. While you are still wearing your gear, scrub it down with the brush and a bucket of soapy water and this will  quickly remove dirt and carcinogens and  can reduce contamination by around 85%.

For colder climates where wet gear is not recommended, using a dry brush to remove soot and debris while on air can be an option.

3. Wipe  It Off

two firefighters on rooftop fighting an active fire

Clean any exposed skin with firefighter  decontamination  wipes after  firefighting activities and  handling contaminated gear on the scene. Focus on your hands, head, face, neck, throat, chest and underarms as these are places known to have higher than normal absorption rates when overheated. It is also essential to take a full shower within one hour as an additional method of removing debris.

4. Keep  It Outside

close-up of protective fire gear piled on a firetruck bumper

Implement a “clean cab” concept to keep contaminated gear outside of the apparatus cab.  Popularized by the Miami Fire Rescue Department and the Coral Springs-Parkland Fire Department,  this method works to keep equipment outside of the truck and in specific storage lockers to reduce  contamination. The concept is simple and yet surprisingly effective in keeping contaminated gear separate.

Don’t forget:

1. Do not store any firefighting equipment  or gear  inside the apparatus cab, even after  on scene gross  decontamination.

2. Clean apparatus cab frequently with soap and water or  firefighter  decontamination  wipes.

 5. Grab the Suds

close-up of two bars of soap covered in foam and bubbles  

Once you’ve decontaminated your gear, reach for the soap and hop in the shower. Showering allows for a deeper cleanse and can help wash away contaminants. Some even recommend  taking a colder shower  to avoid opening your pores.

6. Have Backups

httpsfirefighter's coats and helmets hanging on hooks on the side of a firetruck

You can’t go into the next call with wet gear nor is it advisable to wear the same gear twice without proper washing in between, as wearing contaminated gear puts you at a high risk of absorbing and breathing in the carcinogens left over from the previous fire. Provide each firefighter with at least 2 sets of turnout gear.

7. Get Some Fresh Air

front entrance of firehouse with open bays and firetrucks lined up inside

Diesel exhaust can also cause health issues, including headaches, dizziness, and even cancer. To ensure you’re not breathing in dangerous diesel fumes, install exhaust removal systems in your apparatus bays or create constant fresh air movement.

Remember:   Keep dirty areas separate from clean areas to avoid risk of contamination at the firehouse.

8. Report Exposures

close-up of man viewing ESO exposure report on tablet

If you  or your fellow firefighters have  been exposed to a hazard (fire, chemical, hazmat,  etc,.) you need to document those exposures  on incident reports and personnel reports.  After each incident, use a tool, like  ESO Fire Incidents,  to document all firefighter exposures.  ESO Fire Incidents also integrates with ESO Personnel Management so all exposures and decontamination activities are documented in each employees’ personnel record so everything is in one place. Reporting exposures can help create connections between your work and health as well as establish the number of exposures along your career.

In ESO Fire Incidents, you can document exposure to fire products, foams, PPE worn at the time of exposure, malfunctions of gear, barrier breaches, decontamination procedures, and any post-exposure evidence around nose or mouth such as soot or black mucus. These fields are critical in the fight against cancer in the fire service because we still don’t know which event, which exposure, or how many exposures it takes to develop cancer. So, it’s crucial that we track each exposure with as much detail as possible for the protection of the responders and their families. The ability to have good data to support research will help us battle this growing epidemic.

About ESO Fire Incidents 

ESO Fire Incidents  is an NFIRS reporting tool focused on making documentation and reporting simple and straightforward. With built-in Analytics, fire department leaders can easily turn incident data into actionable information. Learn more about ESO Fire Incidents.

9. Track  Trends

man seated at desktop computer viewing ESO tracking analytics

Leverage reporting tools,  similar to  the ones found in ESO Fire Incidents, to keep track of cancer diagnoses and deaths within your department. By tracking what exposures are occurring in your department you can work to establish stronger prevention plans and better education.

10. Train,  Educate, and Screen

firefighters crawling on their knees during training

There’s no better preparation than education, especially when it comes to firefighter health and safety. One of the best ways to reduce the risk of cancer in the fire service is to educate and train your crews from day one. Be sure to provide your crews with  frequent training and education, as well as annual physicals and cancer screening.

Soot on  a firefighter’s  gear and skin was historically a badge of honor in the fire service, but with multiple studies revealing that this exposure can link to cancer, the  culture is beginning to  shift and fire departments across the globe are beginning to  take action.  Join the fight against firefighter cancer and start implementing these recommendations today.  And while you may not be able to implement or purchase everything you want, the best first step you can do is to do something.

About ESO 

ESO is dedicated to improving community health and safety through the power of data. Since its founding in 2004, the company continues to pioneer innovative, user-friendly software to meet the changing needs of today’s EMS agencies, fire departments, and hospitals. For more  information, visit  eso.com.