'Change' is a bad word in the fire service, but so is 'cancer'

Blog Post created by bpugh Employee on Aug 23, 2017


These were the words of Captain Peter Berger of Hallandale Beach Fire Rescue as he spoke to a full house of fire service industry leaders — along with his partner Captain Greg Moulin of DFW Airport Fire Services — on the topic of Cancer in the Fire Service: A Public Policy Risk Analysis at the 2017 NFPA Conference & Expo in Boston. New evidence suggests that cancer is overtaking heart attack as the number one killer of fire fighters in the United States, and as Berger explained, reports of cancer in the fire service are growing due to exposure to carcinogenic by-products of combustion. Captain Berger and Captain Moulin presented some compelling data on this important issue. 



cancer overtaking heart attack as highest risk of death for firefighters


Captain Berger warned that there is no escaping the reality of this situation. Instead, what needs to happen is the "the 3 A's."


Awareness, acceptance, and action


The high rate of cancer among fire fighters, as both Berger and Moulin explained, was due to three routes of exposure:

- Ingestion

- Inhalation
- Absorption 


The ingestion of contaminates is due in large part by the handling of saturated PPE gear and then eating or drinking without first going through decontamination.


On the topic of "absorption," Captain Moulin stressed that the adage of "the darker your PPE the more manly you are" needs to stop. Proper care and maintenance of your PPE needs to be a priority. Some of the recommended changes he recommended includes regular inspections, including pass/fail inspection checklist, using an extractor or dedicated washer for PPE cleaning, and retiring your PPE after 10 years.



Exposures through inhalation as Berger explained is one that in many cases is preventable through strict PPE policy. Berger provided a number of examples of risky practices that are far too commonplace. Among those mentioned is the exposure to diesel fumes. These fumes pose a risk at the fire scene as well as at the fire house where the engines are stored, many times alongside PPE gear. Berger even shared this startling photo of the air scrubber filters from his own firehouse.

diesel exhaust benzene inhalation risk for firefighters

Captain Berger's heartfelt message was clear: "Let's act smarter so we can make the change happen and get home safe to our families." The changes that Berger and Moulin are suggesting include department policy changes, but perhaps more importantly, a change in attitude. These changes include:

- Complete buy-in is needed from top to bottom.
- Dark soiled gear is not cool.
- Clean gear is smart.
- We need to treat all fire scenes as hazmat scenes.
- Overhaul with PPE is always needed!


In addition to these preventative practices, screenings for cancer needs to be part of the yearly practice.


The full audio from this session is available here. And special thanks to Captain Berger and Captain Moulin for agreeing to share their slides with us here as well. For more on the work Berger and Moulin are doing on this topic, visit the Fire Fighter Cancer Foundation website.


Did you know that NFPA Conference & Expo attendees and NFPA members get full access to all the 2017 NFPA C&E education session audio & video files? Browse the full list of education sessions - with attached audio/video - here.