Battling fires and health risks: How firefighters can reduce their risk of occupational cancer

How firefighters help prevent cancer with new cleaning protocols

After a fire is completely extinguished and the area is deemed safe, the first thing Ryan Evans does before he gets back in the fire truck is put his gear in a bag and wipe his face off.

These steps the Suffield firefighter follows are part of a larger movement taking root in fire departments across the country as new safety regulations are being enacted to help reduce exposure to harmful chemicals and the risk of cancer.

For years, some firefighters thought if their gear was blackened with soot and ash they would be seen as a hard worker. 

“Dirty gear has been, and still to some people is, a badge of honor. It shows that you were in the thick of it, you were into shit, you were doing it and to prove that you’re that macho, dragon slayer kind of guy or gal,” said Jim Burneka, founder of Firefighter Cancer Consultants.

With this mentality prevalent  among firefighters for years, it can be passed down from older firefighters to younger ones just joining the force. But Steve Laskey, who became  a firefighter 27 years ago, said when he talks to his fellow firefighters about cleaning their gear he tries to remind them about why it is important. 

“The one thing I’ve always told the guys … is ‘it’s your life, it’s your kids. What are you taking home? Do you want to be around for any family you have later?’” Laskey said. 

The tough-guy mentality can come with serious consequences. One of the main causes of death for firefighters is cancer. Workers new to the job may be healthy, but the constant exposure to carcinogens can add up over time.

“There’s also this thing called the healthy worker effect. So in general, firefighters can be healthier than the general public, but yet we’re getting sicker more than them,” Burneka said. “We have a nine percent increase in being diagnosed, 14 percent increase of actually dying from cancer. So even though those numbers are already nine and 14, it’s already pretty significant…” 

In 2018, 271 firefighters who died were added to the International Association of Firefighters memorial wall. Of those, 211 died from cancer.

Burneka said due to the numerous different chemicals and “chronic exposure” over a long period of time, that is what causes cancer in many firefighters.

Many firefighters experience members of their departments dying from cancer, and Burneka said that created the motivation for departments to make changes.

“Unfortunately, it has to be something bad happening for them to take a right turn and do something about it,” he said.

While the National Fire Protection Association offers a variety of suggested codes and standards for fire stations across the country to follow, there are no legal requirements that they be met. 

“When we make those into standards…these are the best practices and this is what we can do to ultimately hope to reduce the risk. It’s not a guarantee, but to try to reduce our risk,” Burneka said.

One way departments are starting to invest in keeping their firefighters safer is to more effectively clean their gear and equipment. Many departments invested in special gear washers, dryers and sometimes even special soaps. 

The Ravenna Fire Department invested in what’s called an industrial programmable extractor. It comes with several cleaning settings meant to clean gear following different exposures, as well as regular laundry. The extractor is only capable of washing one set of gear at a time, so it’s a time-consuming process. 

The extractor uses special turnout soap and sanitizer, Lt. Justin DeLuke said. It dispenses the correct amount of liquid according to the program selected. DeLuke said they also can use Tide Pods with the extractor as well.

The Ravenna Fire Department washing machine settings

Adding new cleaning programs for the washer is quick and easy, DeLuke said. The extractor has a slot next to the touch screen that allows for a card that can load new programs into the machine. After only a few minutes, they have a new washer setting. 

In addition to a washer, the department also has a large dryer unit that is used to heat up every piece of gear. The unit comes equipped with special hooks that allow for full ventilation to ensure boots, gloves and heavy inner liners are finished drying in time for the next fire. 

DeLuke said the unit has space for only five hooks, but they can use a fan on the outer shell because it dries quicker than the inner shell. In contrast, he said the inner liner is the part that takes the longest to dry, so they work on it before the other pieces. 

The Aurora Fire Department created a less costly alternative to the cabinet by building its own dryer setup. The firefighters built PVC pipes with holes, and they use a fan to power it. The firefighters loop their sleeves and pants through the pipes so they can all fully dry. They’re also able to lay gloves and shoes on top of some of the pipes as well.

Chief David Barnes demonstrates how to use the homemade dryer at the Aurora Fire Department

An often overlooked health hazard facing firefighters comes from diesel exhaust emitted from emergency response vehicles. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), diesel smoke exposure can have both short- and long-term effects on a person’s health. Short-term exposure to exhaust can be irritation to the eyes and nose, headaches and nausea. Long-term exposure is linked to respiratory diseases and lung cancer. 

Fire departments in Portage County are reducing firefighters’ exposure to diesel exhaust by deploying several tactics. In Aurora, firefighters  attach a tube to their fire truck’s exhaust pipe to collect and funnel exhaust out of the vehicle storage garage. The tube is attached as the truck is backed into the garage and when it’s time to leave the station, it detaches on its own as the firetruck pulls away. When the vehicle returns, the tube is reattached and the process repeats. 

The Ravenna Fire Department utilizes a diesel smoke collection box located under its fire trucks. When the truck is first turned on, the exhaust is collected by the box for 30 seconds, allowing time for the truck to exit the garage. The same box kicks on for 30 seconds to collect exhaust when the truck backs into park.

Ravenna Fire Department Capt. Ryan Hall explains their truck’s exhaust capture system

Cost to make changes 

For many departments, particularly smaller ones, monetary constraints often pose a challenge when it comes to buying the needed gear and equipment to keep them safe.  

Outfitting individual firefighters costs thousands of dollars. According to the Brothers Helping Brothers organization, to completely outfit a firefighter with pants, coat and other pieces of equipment it costs around $9,000 per firefighter. 

The Aurora Fire Department has approximately 49 firefighters working at its station. Each member is provided with a full set of gear, with extra, older sets used as back-ups. According to Barnes, to outfit every firefighter so they have their own coat, pants, boots, helmet and hood the cost is just over $121,000, which does not include the cost for the breathing apparatuses and extra gear at the stations. 

Many grant opportunities are offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Aurora Fire Department used grants in the past to help defray equipment costs. For example, the exhaust tube the department uses to clear diesel fumes typically costs around $100,000, but through a FEMA grant, Aurora only had to pay $6,000 for the device. 

In 2016, the Akron Fire Department received a $4.4 million grant for its firefighters and emergency response teams, according to a press release. The Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation also offers grants aimed at better protecting firefighters.  

Even as stations across the country have started to make changes and buy more gear, it is hard to tell if any of the changes will be able to make an impact until more research is conducted. 

The National institute for Occupational Safety and Health is in the process of creating a National Firefighter Registry of all firefighters to track the link between workplace exposures and cancer. The organization plans to collect data for at least two years and then begin to “analyze and disseminate results,” according to its website.  

Even though this registry attempts to understand the cancer trends among firefighters, they will always be exposed to dangerous situations and harmful chemicals because there will always be a risk factor when fighting fires.

“So just being able to do what we’re supposed to do we know the statistics, we know how to prevent it,” DeLuke said, “nothing’s going to stop it… because of the job, the nature of the job. It is what it is.”