Brookfield Fire Chief David Masirovits carries two funeral cards in his helmet, reminders of his “brothers,” Steve Skipton and Robbie Brannon, both of whom died of cancer. The three men served together at Goose Creek Fire Department in South Carolina.
Looking to keep from adding any more funeral cards to his helmet, Masirovits has implemented several measures to try to lessen the exposure of his new brothers in Brookfield to cancer-causing agents.
As part of that effort, Brookfield hosted a training session May 20 with Kevin Weidig of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network; the session was sponsored by National Fire and Water Repair.
Paul L. Closer, president of National Fire, which has offices in Warren, Sharon and Youngstown, said he has become a supporter of cancer awareness efforts because he is a third-generation volunteer firefighter who lost both parents to cancer.
Weidig said the experiences of Masirovits and Closer illustrate something that largely is overlooked: that cancer is more prevalent in the fire service than most people realize. Studies of small populations of firefighters have shown higher instances of cancer than exists in the general population. A study of Massachusetts police officers and firefighters, who typically have similar health characteristics, showed firefighters were more likely to develop cancer, Weidig said.
While it is difficult to pinpoint the cause of cancer, a typical house fire can give off dozens of cancer-causing chemicals, he said. Even properly worn firefighting clothing does not keep soot and other fire-related residue from getting onto a firefighter’s skin and into the lungs.
The firefighter ethos – the dirty uniform as a source of pride – has allowed firefighters to be re-exposed to these chemicals, and spread them to other firefighters and family members, Weidig said
Something as simple as a cooking fire that is out by the time firefighters arrive has a health risk, as studies have shown that overheated pans give off polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, some of which are considered carcinogens, he said.
Whenever firefighters respond to a call where something is burning, they should wear their turnout gear, gloves and self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBAs) until the fire is out, and even while the contents are smoldering, he said.
“We have to change the way we do things,” Weidig said. “Sometimes, we are our own worst enemies.”
Weidig offered the firefighters tips on how to give their gear a preliminary clean with brush or water at the fire scene, how to take off gear at the scene to prevent fire residue from getting on their bodies, and how to wrap up gear in bags prior to entering a fire truck.
All gear, trucks and tools must be thoroughly cleaned before being put back into use, and firefighters should shower with hot water as soon as they can.
“The dirty gear is no longer a badge of honor,” Weidig said. “You gotta clean your gear.”
In Brookfield, new policies concern hood and gear exchange, ear washing, on-scene decontamination procedures, disinfection of trucks, tools and SCBAs and immediate showers, Masirovits said.
Closer provided contamination buckets containing supplies for on-scene cleanup to each of the 11 departments who attended the training session.
Several more issues need to be addressed, particularly control of diesel exhaust, which settles in truck bays and can be breathed in by anyone who enters the bay, Masirovits said. For departments where turnout gear is stored in the truck bay, diesel soot collects on clean gear, and firefighters expose themselves to it just by putting on their gear.
Diesel exhaust control systems, such as where hoses are placed over diesel exhaust pipes before they enter the station, are expensive, and Brookfield controls three stations, in Brookfield, Masury and Hartford, Masirovits said.
Weidig added that firefighters should follow the typical doctor’s advice for maintaining health: don’t use tobacco products; limit alcohol consumption; apply sunscreen – some departments keep a supply on their trucks; eat well, mostly plants; and exercise regularly.
“If you’re healthy, your body can fight this stuff off better,” Weidig said.