Firefighters and Cancer: If I Only Knew Then What I Know Now

BY JENNIFER CHADWICK

This is the final alarm for Lieutenant Todd “Woody” Woodcock (tones sound). It is with great sadness that the San Antonio Fire Department marks the passing of active duty Lieutenant Todd “Woody” Woodcock, badge number 2374. Woody was assigned to the Training Division and Engine 38 on the A Shift and faithfully served the City of San Antonio for 18 years. He died on Sunday, June 26, after a battle with cancer. Lieutenant Woodcock, we will take command from here. Rest in peace.

Woody was one of a kind and loved by all for the wonderful man that he was. A devoted husband and an amazing father, his wife and daughter are now left with a void in their lives and in their hearts. He was one of the best officers the department has had – a true leader and our firefighters looked up to him. For those of us lucky enough to call him a friend, we are all better people for having known him. He will not be forgotten, and his legacy of protecting his fellow firefighters from this devastating disease will live on.

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Firefighting is an inherently dangerous occupation. We risk our lives for the citizens in the community that we have sworn to protect. Thinking about the potential dangers and risks involved with this profession, we tend to focus on threats that are immediately hazardous – everything from structural collapse to flashover to vehicle accidents. Typically, we do not think about the long-term risks associated with the job. However, there is a hidden threat that has the potential to kill us – not today, not tomorrow, but perhaps someday.

Occupational cancer has become one of the most dangerous threats that firefighters may one day face. It has devastated the fire service, and is now one of the leading causes of line-of-duty deaths. Personally or professionally, we all know someone who has either won their battle with cancer, is currently combatting this terrible disease, or has lost his or her courageous fight. Cancer does not discriminate, it does not care, and it does not show mercy. Cancer is making our friends sick, and it is killing them.

Over the years, the fire environment has evolved dramatically. Building contents are made primarily of plastic and synthetic materials. As these modern materials pyrolize and burn, they release chemicals such as benzene, formaldehyde, and many other carcinogens. Vehicle and dumpster fires also release a large amount of toxins. Even training fires have the potential to expose us to cancer-causing agents. In addition, diesel engine exhaust has been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer – meaning it causes cancer in humans.

Lieutenant Todd “Woody” Woodcock was diagnosed with chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML) in 2014. After his diagnosis, he became one of the biggest advocates for cancer prevention and education, and we often talked about ways to protect our guys and girls. When he first became a firefighter, he didn’t know that cancer would ultimately take his life. We were taught during drill school that heart attacks kill more firefighters than anything else and were warned about potentially dangerous situations on the fireground. What we didn’t learn about and didn’t understand were the consequences of our exposures.

After his transplant, we sat down and he shared information with me that he wanted to pass on to his fellow firefighters. These words of advice from Woody are what he wanted each of you to know and practice every single shift:

I sit here at home recovering from my stem cell transplant with the hope of being cured of this type of leukemia. For years, we didn’t know the hidden dangers of the carcinogens that are present at every fire even after the smoke has cleared. There are several things that firefighters can do to limit their exposure:

1)     Wear your SCBA and gear during overhaul. This reduces the potential for respiratory exposure from materials still off-gassing after extinguishment and reduces the risk of dermal absorption from soot particles on the skin.

2)     Clean your face, neck, underarms, and private areas after a fire. These parts of the body should be wiped off during rehab, and you need to shower as soon as possible after being exposed to products of combustion or other contaminates (exposure to carcinogens will continue until these chemicals are removed from your skin).

3)     Wash your hood after every fire. Studies show that the neck area is one of the most likely regions to become contaminated by known or suspected carcinogens. The hood does not provide the same level of protection as your bunker coat, pants, and helmet.

4)     Clean your helmet at least once a week. The days of “BBQ-looking” helmets can’t go on.  The crap is on there, and then we touch it with bare hands. Dermal exposure to carcinogens can occur anytime we handle our protective equipment that is covered in soot.

5)     Ventilation systems are needed in the stations. The diesel engines we have are the worst at poisoning us where we should feel the safest. Diesel exhaust in a known carcinogen. To minimize exposure, firefighters should run apparatus outside the bay during routine checks. Open bay doors before starting the apparatus, and keep them open until the apparatus is shut off. Close bunker gear locker doors to prevent contamination of gear by diesel exhaust.

6)     Open the windows at the stations at least once a week. When was the last time we did that?

We are not 10 feet tall and bulletproof. We need to take care of ourselves. We can’t have the “that won’t happen to me” attitude.  I said that to myself years ago.

With the amount of research that has been done and because of the number of our firefighters who are sick or who have died from occupational cancer, we have absolutely no excuse not to understand our risk or the magnitude of the problem. Each and every one of us must follow the guidelines and procedures that have been suggested through research or established by departmental policy. For those diagnosed with cancer, there isn’t anything that these brave individuals wouldn’t give to turn back the hands of time and do things differently. We must not let them suffer or die in vain. We must take every step to protect ourselves and the firefighters around us.

JENNIFER CHADWICK is a 14-year veteran and a captain of the San Antonio (TX) Fire Department and is the executive officer of the Safety Division. She has served in the Fire Operations, Emergency Medical Services, and the Training divisions. Previously, she was an electronic systems security assessment analyst in the U.S. Air Force.

 

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