Fear, Snake Oil and Bunker Gear

People tell me that the older I get, the more cynical I will become. To some degree I do believe this. However, instead of being cynical, I like to think of myself as a “realist.” I have spent a lot of time over the last few years on a journey of learning. This journey has been learning about cancer in the fire service and seeing what the realities are about this disease and its impact on our brothers and sisters. I have spent many hours talking to survivors, families, educators, chief officers, non-profits, medical professionals and more. The one thing I have taken away is that cancer does not care who it affects, and we have to act and not just talk.

The last time I was at a fire expo, I was amazed at how cancer in the fire service is front and center in the minds of the industry. Ten years ago, cancer was only whispered about, then slowly people started discussing the problem and now it is everywhere. This is good and bad. From the earliest inception of the North Carolina Firefighter Cancer Alliance we realized that not enough was being done. Then we started teaching, learning and supporting our fellow firefighters with this massive problem — cancer. We quickly realized making changes in the fire service is not an easy process due to the entrenched traditions. Many times, we are pushing for a cultural change and true cultural change takes time.

It seems now almost any company, distributor or salesman seem to either have a product that addresses cancer in some way or they “support firefighters with cancer.” This is where I become realistic and also a little cynical at the same time. I know that everyone is aware that cancer has to be addressed, and that is often done through engineering “solutions” to the problem. And engineering solutions is very important, but the danger comes in the motivation behind these solutions. It surprises me how many of the solutions that are being touted don’t always have a lot of science or research behind them.

A good example of this is turnout gear. All of the major manufacturers are making great strides in improving the quality, safety and effectiveness of gear available to firefighters. This is great, however at the same time, one of the most important factors is not really discussed — the basic care and cleaning of this new gear. You can have the most technologically advanced gear and be tactically trained, however if your gear is dirty or not properly maintained, then it is no better than any other gear. When you walk around and start asking questions about gear you are often quickly pointed to the new bells and whistles that make it “cancer reducing” but the topic of decontamination and proper use of SCBA are rarely covered.

When we teach our Cancer Alliance program to departments and community colleges about the inherent weakness in gear, we often talk about the hood. The fire service knows that hoods are a weak point in our gear and there is a lot of developments happening. So immediately students begin asking questions like “what do you think about brand “A” filtration hood vs. brand “B”? Or “Hey those filtration hoods are great, we just bought them for our department, the company said they filter out 75 percent more contaminants than a regular hood. Is that true?”

In a way these questions really scare me. If we are not careful we can become more tied up in the “engineering” of a solution instead of focusing on the more important thing — clean your hood and change it often. Remember the new filtration hoods have only been around a few years but several of the models are already in their fifth, sixth or even seventh revision. So, we need to be cautious about adopting things blindly without having good science and information to back it up.

When these questions about what gear is best, or what type of hood needs to be used come up, my opinion is pretty straightforward; “we are still learning.” I will never say brand “A” is better than brand “B,” I will only say do your research, and focus on the basics we know work — wash your gear, establish good operating guidelines as a department, and educate your firefighters to the dangers of cancer.

Cancer is a very scary thing period. And sadly, there are opportunists who use fear as a means for personal gain. That goes for cancer or any of the dozens of other problems that face us in our industry. Make sure when you are approached with something “new and improved” to do your research and make an educated decision. I know that the majority of equipment manufacturers, distributors and salesmen do not have malice in mind when it comes to showing the latest technology in the battle to clean up the fire service, they genuinely want to help make our jobs safer, however all of it falls flat if we don’t go back to basics — clean your gear and be smart about how you work on the fire scene.

If your department is getting some new gear or tech, make sure you get the proper training to go along with it. The North Carolina Firefighter Cancer Alliance along with many of our partners have information and educational programs available at no charge that will help you make the most of your department’s cancer reduction programs. Visit our site ncfirefightercancer.org for more information.

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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