Great Awakening–The growing momentum around the problem of firefighter cancer

“My oldest brother, John, became a firefighter in Lexington, Massachusetts, in the late 1960s. Among the department’s four recruits the year he joined was a young man named Ken Donnelly. Kenny, as we called him, served 37 years in the department before he “retired” to become a state senator who championed, among other things, emergency responders and public safety. Late last summer, Kenny was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. He died in April at the age of 66.

Although cancer is hardly a new affliction, and despite multiple studies going back decades showing elevated risks of cancer for firefighters due to at-work exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, it wasn’t until recently that fire departments large and small began thinking more seriously about it. Thankfully, we now seem to be in the midst of a great awakening in the fire service and beyond about the cancer risk, and a collective movement is underway to address it. Researchers have a huge role to play in this effort, not only to offer assistance on how to combat cancer in the fire service but also to provide independent technical information to inform policy.”

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Firefighter Fatalities in the United States, 2016

“In 2016, 69 firefighters died while on duty in the United States as a result of injuries that occurred at specific events that year. When NFPA began reporting on this set of firefighter fatalities 40 years ago, the number of such deaths annually averaged close to 150 per year. The average number of deaths in the past five years has been less than half that, or 73 deaths annually.

Of these 69 firefighters, 39 were volunteer firefighters, 19 were career firefighters, eight were employees of federal land management agencies, one was a contractor with a state land management agency, one was a member of an industrial fire brigade, and one was a prison inmate.

Read the complete 2016 NFPA Firefighter Fatalities in the United States report.
Read firefighter fatality case studies from the NFPA report.
There were three multiple-fatality incidents in 2016: three firefighters died as a result of a floor collapse in a fire in a single-family dwelling; an apparatus crash killed two wildland firefighters on patrol for lightning-ignited fires; and two firefighters died and seven were injured in another apparatus crash while responding to a wildland fire.

Two firefighters were murdered last year and two others died by suicide while on duty. A junior firefighter was shot and killed unintentionally by another firefighter who is now facing criminal charges.”
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NIOSH HHE Evaluated Diesel Exhaust Exposure at Fire Stations

“AIHA noted that NIOSH’s Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) Program responded in 2016 to concern from firefighters about potential exposures to diesel exhaust from three urban fire stations. The firefighters were employees of the same city fire department and were concerned about exhaust possibly entering the living and sleeping areas of the fire station.

NIOSH personnel visited all three stations in order to collect samples, as well as evaluate airflow patterns.

Fortunately, NIOSH found low levels of diesel exhaust, below the recommended limits. Regardless, the authors of the report recommended efforts to further reduce exposures due to the potential health risks associated with exposures to diesel exhaust.

“We found no evidence that diesel exhaust was flowing into the living and sleeping quarters from the apparatus bay in the three fire stations we evaluated. With the exception of one area in Station 17,” they reported, “air flowed from the living and sleeping quarters into the apparatus bay. Although below recommended limits, diesel exhaust concentrations in Station 10’s apparatus bay were higher than those in Stations 16 and 17, most likely due to Station 10’s back-in only design. Although exposures were low in all the stations, efforts to further reduce exposures are appropriate because of the potential health risks from exposures to diesel exhaust.”
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Study Highlights Link Between Firefighters’ Work and High Blood Pressure

“The U.S. Fire Administration alerted stakeholders about a recent, NIOSH-funded study about whether working conditions of career firefighters are associated with elevated blood pressure and hypertension. The research study by the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine found there is a link between the job demands of career firefighters and HBP.

The study investigated whether working conditions such as the number of 24-hour shifts, number of calls, sedentary work, job strain, and other physical demands are associated with elevated blood pressure and hypertension. It involved 330 career firefighters from Southern California who completed a firefighter-specific occupational health questionnaire and had their blood pressure and hypertension levels clinically assessed.”
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NFPA Issues Fire Hose Safety Bulletin

“The National Fire Protection Association has issued an attack fire hose safety bulletin this week to remind the fire service to purchase, maintain, inspect, remove and repair fire hose in accordance with NFPA 1961, Standard on Fire Hose, and NFPA 1962, Standard for the Care, Use, Inspection, Service Testing, and Replacement of Fire Hose, Couplings, Nozzles, and Fire Hose Appliances.

“Research shows that flashover occurs eight times faster today, putting firefighters and their equipment at increased risk,” said Ed Conlin, Public Fire Protection division manager. “As NFPA’s Technical Committee on Fire Hose, the Fire Protection Research Foundation, and others consider attack hose characteristics and research gaps, it’s important that fire departments follow fire hose codes and make tactical changes to keep first responders safe during fast-moving fires.”
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NFPA Bulletin Highlights Risks of Protective Hoods

“A new National Fire Protection Association safety bulletin highlights the dangers firefighters face because of the protective hoods they wear.

“It is well-documented that firefighter Personal Protective Equipment is exposed to a wide range of toxins, pathogens and other hazardous substances,” NFPA noted in its announcement of the bulletin. “According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, firefighters have a greater number of cancer diagnoses and cancer related deaths. Firefighter protective hoods are the most penetrable piece of equipment; they do not stop soot and chemicals from depositing on a firefighter’s neck and head – areas that are extremely vulnerable to dermal exposure.”

“NFPA has had the back of firefighters for more than 120 years,” said Ed Conlin, the NFPA Public Fire Protection division’s manager. “Given the increase in occupational cancer incidents in the fire service, we feel it is best to err on the side of caution as we await additional scientific research on PPE and learn more about the absorption of carcinogens near the forehead, jaw, neck, and throat.”
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Report: NFPA’s “Patterns of Firefighter Fireground Injuries”

“The annual number of firefighter injuries occurring on the fireground has fallen substantially over the last 10 years, with the lowest total in 2014, the most recent reporting year. The vast majority of injuries occurred while fighting structure fires, most of which were building fires. Fires at residential properties were associated with the largest share of firefighter injuries, with nearly three-quarters of the total. One-third of the injuries resulted in lost work time and were classified as either moderately severe or severe injuries, with most injuries classified as minor.

Report highlights
In 2010-2014, there were an estimated average of 30,289 fireground injuries experienced each year by U.S. firefighters.
The majority of firefighter injuries were sustained by career firefighters (79% of the total), with volunteer firefighters experiencing 21 percent of injuries.
Overexertion/strain was the leading injury cause (26% of injuries), followed by exposure to hazard (21%). Other leading causes of injury were slip/trip (13%), contact with object (13%), fall (11%), and struck or assaulted by person, animal, object (7%).
Fires at residential properties were associated with the largest share of firefighter injuries, with nearly three-quarters of the total (73%).”

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