Author(s): Casey Grant. Published on July 2, 2018.

Taking Stock

A death, a retirement, and the long arc of public safety research: improving firefighter health and safety, step by step

As public safety researchers we don’t often acknowledge the impact of our individual efforts, in part because our work spans many years and the measures of success can be elusive. But I think it’s important to take time to recognize our gains, especially when they aren’t always apparent.

I was reminded of this lesson recently following the death of an NFPA friend and colleague and the retirement of another. The first, Bruce Teele, passed away earlier this year. Bruce worked at NFPA as a technical committee staff liaison from 1969 to 2010, and made significant contributions to firefighter safety through his work coordinating the volunteer committees responsible for fire service standards. When Bruce began his career, the use of inadequate and questionable firefighter personal protective equipment (PPE) was widespread—at the time, NFPA did not have a single standard addressing the issue. Today, through the direct efforts of Bruce and many others, there are 25 specific PPE standards, each providing important levels of protection for today’s firefighters. How many firefighters are alive today because of the work Bruce and countless others did behind the scenes?

The same could be said for Paul LeBlanc, who retired earlier this year after 40 years at NFPA. Paul worked here part-time from 1978 to 2018 processing NFPA fire data during days off from his full-time job as a lieutenant with the Boston Fire Department. Over that time, the number of annual firefighter line-of-duty-deaths (LODD) dropped from 174 in 1978 to 60 in 2017 by comparable measures. Although Paul’s work may not have directly resulted in this drop, his work collecting vital LODD statistics allowed the fire service and researchers to learn more about how responders were dying and take action to reduce it.

These positive changes took many years and were hardly a simple one-and-done exercise for Paul, Bruce, or any others in this line of work. That reality is also true for every researcher working today.

An ongoing example has been our work to reduce the high incidence of firefighter cancer. NFPA initiated efforts in this area with a study on respiratory exposure, which the Fire Protection Research Foundation published in 2007. This small study asked a novel question at the time: When it is safe for a firefighter to stop using his or her SCBA on the fireground? Today, in the face of cancer and other long-term health concerns, contamination control and minimizing respiratory exposure is in vogue, but not so much in 2007.

Since then, the study has served as a foundational stepping stone to promote and stimulate further research into firefighter cancer and on-the-job exposures. Two examples are the soon-to-be-completed project, “PPE Cleaning Validation”—known colloquially as “How Clean is Clean?”—that will provide a scientific basis for the cleaning of gear, and the “Fire Fighter Cancer Cohort Study,” a 30-year research project to definitively clarify the impact of firefighter cancer.

The work that continues today is an essential building block for supporting the long-term health of firefighters. The results will support improved standards, essential policy activity (such as expected legislation designed to limit the incidence of cancer), training, and education. Nobody knows if today’s researchers will be around to see the time when cancer in the fire service is eliminated, but I’m glad we had the chance to advance the effort.

Although it’s often a challenge to see the positive impact of our research efforts, we know we are making a difference, and we know our efforts are fruitful and saving lives. We can salute the legacies of colleagues like Bruce and Paul by continuing these efforts and striving to do good work.

CASEY GRANT is executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation. Top Illustration: Michael Hoeweler