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Being in the fire service, it is inevitable that you will be subjected to grief, loss, and a world of other assorted emotions. It is also likely that in addition to the suffering you will see in the field, you will also experience the same range of emotions from your co-workers.

In the firehouse I work out of, we operate with a small roster of 26 officers and firefighters that share the workload of three (3) separate shifts. Regardless of your time in service or the shift you work, it is virtually impossible not to form a relationship with each other that is full of trust and comradery. It is also inevitable that at some point you will be encircled by the same raw emotions from the grief deriving from the loss of one of your brothers. 

Aside from the latest and greatest studies and investigations illustrating the changes in our work environment (building construction, lack of training/education, etc.) that are contributing to the number of Line of Duty Deaths (LODD), there are also numerous studies and analyses pertaining to other key factors and components that are also contributing to the loss of many of our brothers and sisters. These are contributing elements that as firefighters, we have complete control over. The focus and attitude switch with regard to firefighter health and wellness has taken tremendous strides in the fire service. It is becoming less and less possible to ignore the personal factors that contribute to the number one cause of LODDs: sudden cardiac death.

Next to health related LODDs, we are seeing an increase in awareness about the alarming rate of firefighter deaths due to cancer. In my first seven (7) years on the job, I paid my respects as part of the honor guard for two (2) of my Captains who succumbed to this sickness. Both died before turning 50 and before reaching retirement age. In my same small department of only 26, I have also watched two (2) other brothers go through weight loss, illness, treatment, and grief while they too were battling this ugly sickness. Far too often, we are not linking cancer related deaths as LODDs when it’s likely that many of these deaths can be linked to carcinogenic exposures encountered on the job.

With the ever-increasing recognition that changes in building construction are a key factor in fireground firefighter death and injuries, we continue to adjust our tactics and behavior on the fireground in order to lessen the chance of another LODD resulting collapse or falling through a floor. Now that the focus on personal health has begun to increase, many fire departments have implemented health and wellness programs and have developed criteria to address one’s physical composition as part of the firefighter hiring process. Why then are we still so slow in taking measures to prevent unnecessary exposure to the carcinogens that are stripping our brothers and sisters of lives and careers?                   

The way I see it, by implementing a few simple measures in every fire department, we’d be off to a good start toward lessening our cancer risk:

  • Never allow for service vehicles and/or apparatus to run continuously in the bays.

  • Utilize an exhaust/ventilation system whenever service vehicles and/or apparatus are responding or returning.

  • While operating on scene, always wear your SCBA when you are unable to determine if the atmosphere is IDLH.

  • Utilize metering and monitoring equipment on calls that potentially could release carcinogens.

  • Wash your turnout gear, including your helmet, after EVERY fire.

  • Wash up and change into a new uniform after EVERY fire.

  • Do NOT bring your turnout gear home with you.

  • Establish a No Tobacco Use policy

  • WASH YOUR HOOD!!!!

By far the greatest occupational risk to us as firefighters over time is the continuous exposure to toxic products of combustion given off at fires. These carcinogens are transported into our bodies through absorption, inhalation, and even through ingestion. Once inside your body, the slow but steady attack on your vital organs begins. As a fire service, we need to make a real commitment to each other by educating our peers about hazards associated with exposure to carcinogens, while at the same time developing cancer awareness and prevention programs in our departments.

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