The Fire Service and the Cancer Threat

Discussion created by ssawyer on Sep 5, 2019

By Jon Nisja
MN SFM Fire safety supervisor

It seems that every few days, there is another fire service article discussing the risk of firefighter cancer. As a former firefighter who has lost a number of former coworkers to premature cancer deaths and has close firefighter friends currently battling cancer, I know firsthand the terrible toll this is taking on the fire service. That said, however, I am starting to wonder just how seriously the fire service is taking this threat.

Pretty much everyone in the fire service claims that they want to do something about this cancer threat – but do we really? We have all read about the initiatives – have two sets of turnout gear, decontaminate your gear after a fire, purchase extractors for laundering turnout gear, don’t transport turnout gear in your vehicle or keep it in your home, control your weight, use self-contained breathing apparatus (even when the scene is “cool”), don’t smoke, limit alcohol consumption, get sufficient rest, exercise regularly, eat healthy, limit exposure to apparatus exhaust, sample the environment before entering a potentially hazardous environment, etc.

The list seems endless. Noticeably absent from the list is anything truly related to prevention. No, I’m not talking about cancer prevention; I am talking about fire prevention. The bottom line is that if we would prevent the fire from happening or suppress the fire when it is still small, we would significantly reduce this firefighter cancer risk. I am going to argue that the fire service isn’t serious about preventing firefighter cancer; if they were, they would put as much emphasis on preventing the fire from ever happening or confining the fire when it is still small as they do on dealing with the fire’s after-effects – including exposure to cancer-causing byproducts of combustion.

Some would argue that it is blasphemous to say that the fire service doesn’t support fire prevention. In my office, I keep a list of the fire departments who have eliminated their fire prevention program or their fire marshal or fire inspector positions in the past two decades. The list is long (at least 15 fire departments), and it represents over 20 percent of the state’s population. It is hard to argue that fire departments that eliminate the programs that can reduce these cancer risks are serious about addressing the cancer risk.

Let’s get serious about reducing the firefighter cancer risk, and in doing so, let’s add fire prevention to our arsenal of tools for doing so.