Girard firefighters fight to reduce cancer risk
By Samantha Phillips
The Girard Fire Department is taking extra steps to protect its firefighters from a threat that persists long after they clear a scene: carcinogens.
Firefighters are exposed to a wide range of cancer-causing hazards on the job, so the risk for contracting certain types of cancer are high, said Brian Pearson, Girard Firefighters Local 1220 secretary.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that firefighters are twice as likely to acquire testicular cancer or mesothelioma than the general public.
“The carcinogens are found on dirty turnout gear, inside apparatus and in the carpets and furniture of firehouses across the country. And when we go home in the morning after our shift ends, firefighters are exposing their families to these same carcinogens that are stuck to our uniforms and shoes. Firefighters are constantly exposed to these toxic particles,” Pearson said.
Pearson said Girard, like many fire departments across the country, has a long history of firefighters and their spouses being diagnosed with cancer.
“The job inherently is dangerous enough, and if we can do anything to protect the firefighters from threats like cancer, then we will do everything we can,” Fire Chief Ken Bornemiss said.
Wearing protective gear on the scene of a toxic environment isn’t enough.
“We are finding that just cleaning the equipment thoroughly after structure fires is a big step in cancer prevention. So we’ve initiated some programs around here to start that. We want to be progressive in that area,” Bornemiss said.
The Girard Fire Department took recommendations from the Firefighters Cancer Support Network and drafted a comprehensive plan to reduce cancer risk: “[It] aims to minimize exposure to personnel working in toxic environments and atmospheres before, during and after a fire-related incident,” Pearson said.
Bornemiss signed it into a Standard Operating Procedure in May.
“I’m in favor of anything we can do from our end to promote safety for our firefighters,” Bornemiss said.
Now, the department follows a set plan to cut down on cancer risk.
Firefighters must wash gear right away after being exposed to a fire or toxic environment before entering a vehicle to avoid carcinogens, which might not be detected by smell or sight, lingering in the vehicles or fire station.
A no-gear policy was enacted in the living quarters.
Firefighters are reminded to wear protective equipment including a breathing apparatus properly in toxic environments.
Each firefighting vehicle carries a decontamination kit, which includes sanitary items to clean dirty gear.
Dirty gear used to be seen as a badge of honor and a testament to the firefighter’s service, but it actually made the gear a source of constant exposure, Pearson said.
Through the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation’s Environmental Elements Grant Program, the fire department got a diesel exhaust system in 2012, which eliminated cancer-causing fumes from the station through hoses attached to apparatus tailpipes.
The program also provides a gear washer and other much needed supplies.
Pearson said more research can be done on firefighters and the rates of cancer diagnoses because of the Firefighter Cancer Registry, and an Ohio law passed last year allows firefighters in certain situations to get workers’ compensation if diagnosed with cancer.
“It will be impossible to totally eliminate the incidence of exposure, but collectively, these steps will improve our odds of having a healthy career and a dignified retirement. It is about our families, too, about making sure we take the steps to prevent exposing them to the same toxins,” Pearson said.