NY State Fire Kicks Off Effort To Protect Firefighters From Cancer Threat | WAMC

NY State Fire Kicks Off Effort To Protect Firefighters From Cancer Threat

Feb 21, 2020

The New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services’ Office of Fire Prevention and Control has begun a new statewide effort to reduce the cancer risk to firefighters and their families.

Officials say the cancer rate for firefighters is higher than that for the general public, caused by exposure to toxins during fires, so they've put together an on-site decontamination procedure to wash away 85 percent of contaminants on turnout gear.

State Fire Administrator Francis Nerney at the Latham Firehouse.
Credit Chet Lasell

State Fire Administrator Francis Nerney spoke Wednesday in Latham:  "They're on the scene of a fire scene, which is pretty much already contaminated. So that's why we're doing it right there where the fire was. That reduces a lot of the spread and cross-contamination. We don't want to bring it back to our homes, the firehouses, to the firetrucks."

New protocol includes rinsing firefighters off with a garden hose at low pressures to remove large contaminants, followed by brush-washing gear with a solution of dish detergent and water.   "Dawn soap is one of the brands, but similar brands can do the same thing. Dish soap is relatively mild, but does the job of removing or breaking the bonds with the gear pretty well until we can remove most of the contaminants off the firefighter gear."

Nerney says the firefighter is rinsed again with the low-pressure garden hose and then washes their helmet.  Finally, the gear is bagged for transport to prevent contamination from spreading and subsequently washed according to local department policy.

Rack of turnout gear hung at the Latham Firehouse.
Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

Fire protection specialist Tim Graves:   "Firefighters give so much to their communities. They need to take care of themselves. They need to take care of their families so they can have long, healthy careers. So by doing these simple techniques we can reduce the amount of firefighter-related cancer, the occupational cancer."

Firefighters in full turnout gear demonstrated the procedure for reporters at the Latham Volunteer Firehouse.  Nerney says occupational cancer is a leading cause of death among firefighters.  "We're recognizing where it's coming from and we're learning more and more about. And because of our increased risk for cancers from firefighting, we're trying to decontaminate our firefighters as quickly as we can. We're developing new processes and one of the first ones we're working with is decon right out of a fire scene. Gross decon removes about 85 percent, we've known that for years when we teach firefighting hazardous materials response, so we're recognizing that's the quickest way to reduce the risks."

Throughout the next year, state experts will travel across the state to bring the procedures to local departments.  New sessions are being scheduled on a rolling basis.  If you are a firefighter and looking for an educational session near you, or would like to host one at your department, view the State Office of Fire Prevention and Control’s training calendar, or contact your County’s Fire Coordinator.