Cancer And The Firefighter


FSI® has served the life safety industry for 21+ years, and our personnel have well over 100 years of interaction with the fire service. Virtually every one of us has seen cancer strike down one or more of our fire fighter friends.

The fire equipment industry is indeed peopled with the most heroic of people – those who will run into a burning fire when all others are running from it.

Over the years, the incidence of cancer among fire fighters has clearly been shown to be far higher (13X has been stated) than that of the general populace, and the studies and proof of same can be found the world over. The following are taken from various publications and statements readily found in the public domain.

In the USA, laws in nearly 40 states have expanded medical, workers’ compensation and disability coverage for such cancer cases, and fire departments are revamping training and how they handle gear to lessen risks.

Recently, a bill to create a national registry of firefighters diagnosed with cancer was introduced with bipartisan support. Ohio’s governor signed into law a measure extending firefighters’ coverage for workplace cancers.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation has added names of firefighters who died of cancer to its memorial honoring line-of-duty deaths.

Yet with awareness comes anxiety from municipal governments, which are concerned about setting a precedent for other public employees and triggering spiraling costs.

The National Council on Compensation Insurance, which tracks workers’ comp proposals and legislation nationally, counted almost 90 first-responder cancer presumption bills in 2016. That number was already at 70 + in the first few months of 2017.

Protracted legal battles have been and will be fought to establish the workplace links to a cancer or expand the cancers covered as occupational hazards.

Cancer studies in emergency responders began in earnest after the Ground Zero cleanup after the 9/11 attacks in New York.

In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the final results of what might be the largest study of cancer risk among career firefighters ever conducted in the United States. The study of about 30,000 firefighters over a 60-year span showed that compared with the general population, firefighters on average are at higher risk for certain kinds of cancer — mainly oral, digestive, respiratory, genital and urinary cancers.

The CDC also found that firefighters who were exposed to more fires than their peers experienced more instances of lung cancer and leukemia.

Fires carry soot and smoke from high-toxin synthetic material and electronics. Exhaust fumes from diesel fire engines present a hazard. The protective gear that insulates firefighters from heat and flames also raises body temperatures, opening pores to absorb chemicals. Embedded smoke on your gear and helmet used to be a sign of an experienced firefighter, but more and more people recognize it’s a hazard.

Concerned with the results of the CDC study — and similar research coming out of Norway and Australia — fire departments and firefighters unions nationwide have and are revamping safety policies.

There is also the issue of monetary arguments for doing all you can to protect the fire fighter – again these statements are in the public domain and are not those of this writer. Local governments often are “vocal opponents because it is a cost issue” and “they have to be financially solvent,” and cancer presumption laws are among the top issues.

A single leukemia claim could cost in the millions of $’s over an individual’s lifetime. Legislation granting firefighters full early retirement and coverage for various types of cancer will cost millions of dollars.

I could go on and on. Firefighters and communities in every state and country face this issue.


Yet almost nowhere is one of the easiest things to do being addressed. Why is it that when a fire fighter leaves the scene of the fire, one of the first things they do is turn off their breathing air and take off their face mask and helmet and loosen or remove their turnout gear? It’s certain they are hot, tired, and sweaty and want that bunker gear off them. But the second they turn off their breathing air and take their masks off, they are breathing in the harsh fumes that cause cancer and absorbing the sooty carcinogenic chemicals into their skin that are embedded in their equipment as they remove it.

Why not add one small step to fire fighting – one called ‘Gross Decon’ that uses the decontamination showers and equipment every fire department already has – to shower the fire fighter once they exit the building and before they turn off their breathing air or remove a single thing.

Gross decon can consist of simply turning the fire hoses on each other, or using a gross decon kit which could consist of buckets, brushes and liquid soaps. As Troy Jackson of South Metro CO has stated, “All engines will be equipped with decontamination buckets. Crews will have access to rubber gloves, face masks, soap, specialized cleaning wipes, trash bags and scrub brushes. We’ll actually treat a structure fire more like a hazmat call so our firefighters will actually go through a decontamination process at the fire scene,” Jackson said. All firefighters have also been issued two sets of gear so they always have one that is clean and free from toxic chemicals.”


You can consider FSI portable hazmat decon showers that come in all sizes and configurations and can be set up by the pump operator in a minute(s). These small portable showers are ideal for privacy for the male or female firefighter; to shelter from the prying eyes of the public/press; for added warmth; and for the containment of carcinogen agents after decon occurs.

After showering, then and only then, turn off breathing air, complete PPE removal, bag all for washing at the station, and redress.

NFPA 1851 

There is a new proposed 2019 Edition of NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting in the Public Comment stage at this time.

Here is the wording FSI® has proposed be added to the NFPA 1851 standard.  If you agree write to the NFPA and tell them.

Yvonne Smith  Project Administrator  NFPA    1 Batterymarch Park   Quincy, MA 02169-7471    Phone: 1-617-984-7489   e-mail:

FSI proposes to have added to NFPA1851 section the following:

“For maximum safety for the firefighter from carcinogens do not turn off the SCBA air or remove masks on leaving the fire scene.  Instead proceed immediately into an ANSI # 113 compliant decontamination shower that has been set up on site.  Through the use of copious amounts of water/detergents/and light or heavy scrubbing based on decon protocols, remove as much of the soot and contaminants as is feasible.  Only then exit the shower area and turn off the SCBA air and remove mask and PPE.

Bag and Tag all wet – but modestly cleaned on scene – PPE for proper cleaning and washing back at station.

By use of this procedure the firefighter is protected, the PPE is rendered neutral, and the fire engine seats are far cleaner.”


Cancer awareness is a great thing. The IAFF has done a lot in cancer prevention. Some states are considering bills to assist volunteer firefighters with cancer, and there’s a push to create a national firefighter cancer registry.
By taking this seemingly simple action of decontaminating the fire fighter once they exit the building and before they turn off their breathing air or remove a single thing, perhaps it can help save lives and for those politicos and accountants help in some small way by controlling those spiraling health care costs at local levels.

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