By Brian F. McQueen
Writing for the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)
The Issue at Hand
Studies have shown that firefighters have a higher risk for multiple types of cancer than the general population. On the bright side, there are specific actions firefighters can take to reduce these risks and prevent occupational cancer.
On August 8, 2018, the NVFC and the International Association of Fire Chiefs Volunteer and Combination Officers Section (VCOS) released the Lavender Ribbon Report: Best Practices for Preventing Firefighter Cancer (PDF). This report can be downloaded for free from the NVFC and VCOS web sites. But where is the report in your station? Is it on a shelf in the office? Is it in the magazine rack? Or is it embedded into your daily instructional practices?
All fire service officers understand the importance of ongoing training for their members, and it is through training that we can impart and reinforce practices that will protect our firefighters from cancer risks and exposures. Over the past five years, the research and knowledge shared on the growing cancer epidemic has been distributed by many national and state fire service organizations in hopes of preventing the pain and suffering a cancer diagnosis can cause. Having received an occupational cancer diagnosis four years ago, I know firsthand how difficult this is. It impacted not only me, but my family and my fire service family.
We’ve heard it before: “It’s time to change the culture when it comes to cancer prevention in the fire service.” We run into a wall when members interpret culture change as a taking away of our fire service traditions. However, instead of a full-on culture change, we should really look at it as a “repositioning of culture,” which is to say the reconstruction of the cultural concepts found in the fire service society of today. As we learn more, we must adjust and adapt to current knowledge. In other words, building on the past while creating the future!
While the Lavender Ribbon Report provides 11 best practices for preventing firefighter cancer, in this article I’d like to focus on a couple of these practices as well as the need to embed cancer prevention training in each of our departments.
Issue #1: Failure to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) throughout the entire fire incident
In the past, residents would have 13-15 minutes to evacuate a structure during a fire incident. Today, however, research done by Underwriter Laboratories tells us that has been reduced to three to three-and-a-half minutes. Why? Homes of today contain highly flammable materials, fire retardant materials, technology equipment, and lightweight, open home concepts. Fire travel is increased with the numerous chemicals found in building construction today.
The newer materials found inside homes and in home construction today also release additional chemicals and carcinogens during a fire. With carcinogens entering our bodies both through our skin and through our lungs, the need for us to wear full self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and our PPE throughout a fire event (including overhaul) is a must.
Building this concept into our recruit and new firefighter training, as well as reinforcing it in our training sessions throughout the year, is crucial to our survival.
Issue #2: Developing a hood policy
I often wonder if the non-Hodgkin lymphoma that was found growing in my neck was attributed to my failure to clean my hood. Throughout much of my time in the fire service, it was seen as a badge of courage to have the dirtiest hood, gear, and helmet hanging in your locker. You thought that new members came into the station thinking you were the workhorse in your department. There were times 15-20 years ago when we used to ask, “Do we really need to wear a hood for this fire?”
We now know the face and neck are significant areas of dermal exposure, so wearing a hood is a needed layer of protection. We also know that toxins cling to fabric, so putting back on a dirty, contaminated hood presents its own exposure risks. Encourage your team to develop a second hood policy within your department. Having the ability to wash the contaminated one and replace it with a clean one can help you reduce the chance of contracting cancer.
I’ve heard a lot of opposition when it comes to “spending village or fire district monies” on a second hood or a second set of gear. We must make clear to our local government officials is that it would cost more to replace a firefighter, pay their compensation, and pay their presumptive coverage than it would to provide the equipment needed to give each firefighter, paid or volunteer, the safety protection they deserve.
Issue #3: Cancer prevention education training – using the Lavender Ribbon Report at your station
The Lavender Ribbon Report details these and many other cancer prevention practices for firefighters. The question remains, where is your copy of the Lavender Ribbon Report? Do you have one? Have you read it? Our main goal should be training fellow firefighters about the significant threat of occupational cancer and what they can do to protect themselves. It’s the right thing to do.
We must continually build on and reinforce the lifesaving best practices outlined in the Lavender Ribbon Report. There are many videos, photos, and stories out there that are readily available to help you incorporate these messages into your training program. Educate your members on the effects that a cancer diagnosis has not only on the individual, but on their family, friends, and the entire department. Develop standard operating guidelines that include the cancer prevention initiatives. With both training and department policy focused on protecting firefighters from cancer, your members will be more supportive about the cultural shift these changes bring.
During the month of December, representatives of the NVFC, VCOS, Provident Insurance, and VFIS began developing a curriculum-based instructional tool to help departments implement the Lavender Ribbon Report. With an aggressive goal of a spring 2019 release, this educational tool will be shared as a train-the-trainer program at major conferences, conventions, and training summits to get it out to as many departments as possible.
In closing, the choice is yours. If you choose to put the healthiest, well-trained firefighters on your floor, it starts with your acknowledgement that cancer is an issue for all of us in the fire service and that we must take action to prevent it.
Brian F. McQueen is past chief of the Whitesboro (NY) Fire Department and past director of the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY). He serves as a New York director, executive committee member, and cancer focus area co-chair for the National Volunteer Fire Council. Brian was awarded the Golden Trumpet from FASNY for his work on the Volunteer Firefighters Cancer Law, and he is a board and founding member of the Believe 271 Foundation Inc.