Cancer is Everyone’s Concern

We have known for quite a while now that cancer is affecting firefighters in an unprecedented manner. You can’t go to a conference, class, or website without seeing information on the dangers of cancer and sometimes even recommendations on how to take preventative action. This is good. We are finally getting the message as firefighters. However, there is still a lot of work to do in addressing cancer in the fire service.


The most important thing to keep in mind when you talk about exposure protection on the fire scene is placement and set up of equipment.

A lot of times when the topic of firefighter cancer comes up, organizations, companies, and educators that focus on cancer education often get stuck on a misconception: all firefighters ride a big red truck. Most of the focus on cancer prevention is focused on suppression personnel and the activities that they are engaged in. This is important since the majority of work on the active fire scene is done by suppression personnel, however many times the other activities conducted on scene do not receive the same attention when it comes to cancer reduction strategies.

Everyone on the fire scene needs to be “cancer aware.” Think of all of the medical support personnel, command officers, safety officers, information officers, investigators and other persons who have specific tasks on the fire scene, and often times they face the same exposure risks, just with little to no protective equipment.

The most important thing to keep in mind when you talk about exposure protection on the fire scene is placement and set up of equipment. Often times the placement of trucks and fire apparatus is dictated by the fire itself. However, the other equipment on scene is often placed based on convenience and preference. Think about the placement of things such as command post and medical monitoring and rehabilitation. These functions, while important, can often be setup in various different locations and maintain their effectiveness.

Once a fire scene has been established, if command personnel take time to look at conditions such as wind direction and environmental factors the placement of these secondary functions can be put into locations that minimize exposure to smoke and debris. Also taking time to verify the location of these functions can help protect the workers at these positions and reduce the exposure of firefighters during rehab and monitoring.

Additionally, when vehicles are parked on scene, it is important to protect them as well from exposure to smoke and carcinogens. This can be done by parking vehicles away from the actual fire scene and keeping windows and compartment doors closed as much as possible. These simple steps can go a long way in reducing exposure to support staff.

If support staff need to be near the active fire scene, even into salvage and overhaul phase, make sure adequate filtration masks or scba are available for the personnel that are in those areas. Even after the fire is out, there is still a lot of particulate matter in the air and the scene can still be off gassing for many hours after the fire is “out.”

This brings me to another key area that is important to me since on the fire scene I normally work as an investigator. Investigator safety as far as wellness goes is pretty abysmal. To date there have been several significant studies dealing with the need to use respiratory protection and adequate skin protection due to the fact that the exposure to soot and debris is much more focused for investigators generally. Also, the ATF conducted a very important study on the effects of washing uniforms and clothing and how it can almost completely remove carcinogens, but it also needs to be washed separately from other non “contaminated” clothing to prevent cross-contamination. We have all of this very useful health and wellness information for investigators but it is seldom even mentioned.

Another practice that drives me crazy with investigators is the “sniff testing” of debris when looking for the use of accelerants. We don’t need to be sniffing evidence and debris, it is very unhealthy. Let’s leave that to the arson dogs who have a much better nose than we do for finding evidence. As investigators we need to always use upmost caution when handling and packaging evidence, remember it is not only to preserve the evidence, but we want to be health conscious as well. Always wear a mask and gloves when packaging up evidence.

In conclusion, everyone on the fire scene, including support personnel need to be “cancer aware” and practice the same strategies that we know work in exposure reduction and contamination. Remember, cancer is indiscriminate when it comes to choosing its victims.

Travis McGaha currently works as an assistant fire marshal with the Concord Fire Department. He has worked in the fire service for seven years and has been working as an advocate for cancer awareness and prevention for more than 15 years through various organizations. In the last year he has worked with several other firefighters around the state in founding the North Carolina Firefighter Cancer Alliance which is a non-profit organization that focuses on educating and supporting firefighters about the dangers of the exposures that they face.

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