Author(s): Ken Willette. Published on January 3, 2017.

Engaged and Mobilized

How the fire service is tackling the problem of firefighter cancer

In recent years, firefighter occupational exposure to carcinogens has re-emerged as a prime concern of the fire service and the national organizations that represent them. I use the term “re-emerged” because it’s hardly new. When I was a young firefighter in the 1970s, I recall veterans remarking that smoke from the fires we were fighting was more acrid and biting than in the past. They theorized it was because of the increased use of plastics in homes and vehicles, a trend that even back then we understood as detrimental to our health.

A 1981 article, “Firefighter Exposure to Carcinogens,” published by NFPA, presented a comprehensive overview of related research and listed a number of products and chemicals believed to boost cancer rates. Interestingly, the article mentions earlier work that found an increased incidence of nose and throat cancers in firefighters, as well as higher rates of intestinal, rectal, colon, and brain cancers.

If cancer in the fire service has been on our radar for decades, what’s different now? One key difference is the amount of activity around the issue; in the past there was a trickle, but today the cancer problem is being met by a tsunami of initiatives. These activities hit the issue from multiple angles—scientific, operational, behavioral—and are complemented by the commitment of individual firefighters to be proactive in addressing their personal exposure.

There has never been more research or technology focused on this issue than there is today. I just returned from the 2016 NFPA Responder Forum, where the use of data and technology in addressing risk from occupational exposures was illustrated repeatedly. We heard about wearable sensors that analyze products of combustion, predictive analytics that can estimate what firefighters are exposed to on the fireground, and enhanced data collection and reporting that can provide firefighters with logs of their occupational exposures. These efforts are supported by extensive research, as well as improved access to valuable data. A host of related research work is also underway, such as a Fire Protection Research Foundation study on proper decontamination of firefighter protective equipment. I have also seen the emergence of advocacy groups, such as the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, that are focused on raising awareness of occupational exposures and preventative measures.

NFPA is examining what role it should play in reducing firefighter occupational exposures and how we as an association can convert our wealth of information—data amassed over years of standards development, training, research, and analysis of firefighter deaths and injuries—into knowledge that will raise firefighter awareness of the preventative steps they can take.

The fire service itself is also more involved than ever—I have rarely seen the fire service community become this engaged with an issue in such a short amount of time. All of the key national fire service organizations are aggressively taking steps to address this issue. They’re doing it by making the topic a focus of their conferences and publications, investing resources to educate their members about the dangers of exposure during firefighting operations, and addressing the gaps in current decontamination and standard operating procedures. Many individual fire departments have implemented programs to minimize occupational exposure to carcinogens and support those combatting cancer.

The needle is moving, and the momentum is increasing. If we stay dedicated to the cause, I am confident we can dramatically reduce or eliminate this scourge that has plagued the fire service for decades.

KEN WILLETTE is fire service segment director at NFPA.