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Six Things Every Volunteer Firefighter Must do to Reduce Their Cancer Risk

firefighter with SCBA

A burning structure won’t alter its behavior because the crew that shows up is volunteer or career – or some hybrid of both. Fire follows its own rules. That’s one reason you’ll often hear volunteers say “we fight the same fire with the same training as our career brothers and sisters.”

And while that’s true, there are some unavoidable differences. Career firefighters generally have more time, resources and experience than volunteer firefighters. That means they train more often, use better training and firefighting equipment and have more hands-on experience.

Much the same can be said about cancer. As one of the leading causes of firefighter deaths,  cancer doesn’t care  if the firefighter  hails from a career or volunteer fire department. But as with fighting fire, there are some undeniable differences between volunteer and career firefighters when it comes to keeping cancer at bay. Again, volunteers often lack the appropriate resources to follow the cancer prevention best practices as a whole. For example, having a second set of PPE and having laundering machines designed to clean PPE are things many volunteer departments simply cannot afford.

One of the nation’s leading firefighter safety advocates, Chief Billy Goldfeder is an international director for the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Safety, Health and Survival Section, and a former volunteer firefighter. He’s most known for and its email newsletter the “Secret List.” He’s also not one to suffer fools or mince words when it comes to firefighter safety. Firefighters often play the volunteer card as an excuse for not reducing their cancer risk, he says. “It’s an invalid excuse. It’s not a volunteer issue, it’s a firefighter issue.”

Yet, volunteer firefighters can take steps to greatly reduce cancer risk despite some of the unique challenges faced in the volunteer segment. As a volunteer firefighter, here are six things you can start doing immediately to better protect your health.

But first, let’s take a quick look at what cancer is. Cancer is basically a malfunction in how your cells operate. Normally, cells grow old and die, then new cells are created to replace those. Cancerous cells don’t die off as they should and they divide and grow new unneeded cells; they can also convince normal cells to divert blood and oxygen to help cancer cells grow and hide from our immune system. That  rogue cell growth is the result of changes to our very genetic make-up.

These genetic changes are often sparked by exposure to toxic materials known as carcinogens. And as we’re often reminded, firefighters are about two times more likely to get certain types of cancer than the general population. And many believe that higher risk is due to the toxic airborne soup firefighters are exposed to on every working fire.

So, here are six ways experts say you can limit your exposure risk to cancer while still serving your community as a volunteer firefighter.

  1. Wear your gear

If you are a firefighter, this responsibility begins and ends with you. Wear all your protective gear and SCBA on any call where toxins  could be present. This includes structure fires, vehicle fires and other fires like trash container fires. It is also just as important that you wear all your protective gear and SCBA during overhaul operations.  If you are an officer, make sure everyone on scene is wearing their gear properly. There is no excuse for not doing this; it is your first and best line of defense. As Chief Goldfeder says, “Gone are the days of excuses — there are too many firefighters tragically rotting away from cancer. All professions wear their gear — pro football, military, etc. — so stop the b.s. and wear it.”

  1. Clean your gear

Growing evidence shows that the contaminants that get on a firefighter’s  PPE at a fire don’t necessarily stay there. These microscopic, cancer-causing materials fall off and cling to other surfaces and become airborne through off-gassing. As scientists wrestle with trying to figure out how clean firefighter PPE actually is after washing, most experts agree the best practice is a two-step cleaning process.

First, it is important to conduct  a gross decontamination on scene after the fire. That means getting as much of the big particles off as possible. Two firefighters can easily clean one another — while still on SCBA air — with a simple dry brush followed by a wet, soapy brush and a hose down. Brushes, mild detergent and a bucket can easily be stored on the first-due truck. And some departments have gone as far as connecting a small garden hose to the pump panel to draw warm water for this on-scene scrub down.

Second, when back at the station, separate and wash the PPE immediately. This should include  hoods, gloves, helmets, SCBA and any hoses or tools that were used. Gloves and hoods are especially notorious for harboring cancer-causing particles. And while many volunteer departments cannot afford a high-end PPE washer/extractor and drying cabinet, NFPA’s Ken Willette said in a recent webinar on firefighter cancer that regular washing machines, like those used at home, are a workable solution until funds can be raised for proper cleaning equipment.

However, you should never wash your gear at home; it can leave contaminants in your home washing machine — and those contaminants will spread to your family’s clothing. Likewise, avoid taking your PPE home or in your personal vehicle. If you must carry your gear, Willette urges you to keep it in a sealed plastic bin. That will prevent much of the contaminants from traveling from your gear to your vehicle.

Don’t needlessly expose yourself or your family to cancer by ignoring these simple cleaning steps.

  1. Clean your body and your house

Be sure to wash the clothes you wear under your PPE and shower as soon as possible after a fire. PPE does a good job of keeping contaminants off you as a firefighter, but small particles can still get on your skin.

It’s also critical to keep the firehouse clean. Diesel exhaust is a known carcinogen; exhaust removal systems are a must for every department. If you don’t have such a system or it’s an older model, it is recommended to only run your trucks outside. Keep any offices, dayrooms, kitchens and other common gathering spaces sealed off from the apparatus bay. Not only will this help keep the diesel particles out, it will also help keep  the contaminants from your PPE from reaching those rooms — yes, that means you cannot wear your turnout gear in those areas.

And don’t forget the truck. When riding back to the station after a call, all of those contaminants  embedded in your PPE  are now collecting in the inside of the  truck. Make sure to give the interior a good scrub down after every fire.

  1. See your doctor

Even if you’ve never been sick a day in your life, go to the doctor once a year for a full physical examination. Early detection is key to surviving cancer. If you wait until symptoms are bad enough to “warrant an appointment,” it may be too late. “No one likes going to the doctor,” Chief Goldfeder says. “But you’re a firefighter, so show some of that so-called bravery of yours and make the appointment.”

Remember to tell your doctor on each visit that you are a volunteer firefighter and have an elevated risk for cancer. The International Association of Fire Chiefs published a guide to help medical professionals better understand the inherent health risks of fighting fire.

You can get a copy of the guide here (

And consider keeping a digital diary of your fires and the exposure incidents; it’s another way you can work with your primary-care doctor to track your risk factors. It will also come in handy if you are diagnosed with  cancer and need to prove that it is job related.

  1. Change your lifestyle

If you use tobacco products, now is the time to stop.  If you can’t quit on your own, find the resources to help. Being a firefighter already increases your risk of cancer; smoking or dipping further compounds that risk. If firefighting is driving down a dark road at night, smoking is cutting off the headlines; your chances of hitting something are much higher.

“A 5-foot, 5-inch firefighter weighing 350 pounds had a heart attack. How could that happen?” Chief Goldfeder asks. “A 5-foot, 5-inch firefighter weighing 350 pounds, that’s how. We are in physically exhausting work like an athlete, but in athletics there are practices, warm up, times out, etc. You do get those. So, how fit do you want the firefighters to be that may have to rescue a family member of yours? There’s your answer.”

Take a hard and honest inventory of other risk factors in your life such as unprotected sunlight exposure, diet, excessive weight and alcohol use. Regular exercise, proper sleep and a diet low in saturated fats, simple carbohydrates (white flour products) and refined sugar and high in vegetables, fruits, and high-quality fats will make your body more resistant to several diseases, including cancer. It also will help you better fight off cancer in the event you are diagnosed. Most importantly, it will help you to be a better firefighter.

  1. Preach it

Remember when you were a kid and your friends convinced you to do something stupid — jump off the roof or throw eggs at your neighbor’s house? Peer pressure worked then and it can work for you now. Encourage your fellow firefighters to accept the challenge when it comes to proactively taking steps to help reduce their risk of cancer.

Find cancer-prevention religion and evangelize it among your fellow volunteer firefighters. Follow best practices through deed and word. That means taking care of yourself and encouraging and supporting others to do the same. Once cancer prevention practices have reached a critical mass in your department, it becomes part of your culture — those who don’t follow those practices will be the outliers and peer-pressured into getting in line with the group’s ideals.

But as Chief Goldfeder cautions, you’ve got to first walk the talk. “Make sure that if you’re going to preach it, you are setting an example. Otherwise start at #1 above. Again. Then go to #6.”


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