By Anna Johnson, Kristen Johnson
The News & Observer
WAKE COUNTY, N.C. — Every firefighter knows a firefighter who has died from cancer.
“Seeing some of the firefighters around here that have fought some of the battles with cancer and then losing,” said Darrell Alford, Wake County’s director of fire and emergency management, “it just kind of hits home when you have somebody close by.”
Reducing the risk of cancer is why Wake County is spending nearly $600,000 to give career firefighters a second set of turnout gear in the county’s new fiscal-year budget.
“We know that one of the significant on-the-job risks is exposure to carcinogens, and many of the cancer-related deaths have been recognized as on-the-job fatalities,” Wake County Commissioner Matt Calabria said. “We owe it to ourselves and our community and our first responders to make sure we protect those who protect us.”
Smoke inhalation. Overexertion. Collapsed roofs. Burns.
“That type of thing is what typically causes a fatality for people on duty,” said Keith Wilder, Raleigh’s fire safety chief.
But firefighters carry the effects of their job into retirement.
“Overall. cancer is what’s taking the lives of firefighters, whether active or retired,” Wilder said.
In 2022, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, gave firefighting its highest hazardous rating. It cited mesothelioma, which affects the tissue lining the lungs, chest and abdomen, and bladder cancer among the types of cancer for which firefighters. are at higher risk
The National Volunteer Fire Council and International Association of Fire Chiefs released the Lavender Ribbon Report, which recommends having a second set of turnout gear, which includes pants, jacket, gloves and boots.
Firefighters with only one set are either out of commission until it can be cleaned or stuck wearing contaminated gear on calls for the rest of their shift. A second set lets them change into fresh gear and start cleaning the first.
Wilder, a nearly 37-year-veteran of the Raleigh Fire Department, keeps a copy of the report within reach in a purple folder where he keeps papers related to firefighter health and safety.
“There’s no immediate consequence for exposure or having this stuff on your skin,” Wilder said. “It’s not like touching a hot plate and getting burned. The consequence is going to be years down the road. And that’s the paradigm shift that has to take place.”
Firefighters are dedicated to getting trucks back in service. They must now apply that same focus to themselves.
“They want to get back and get the truck ready to take the next call,” Wilder explained. “At the same time, they are sacrificing their own personal health if they don’t come back and clean their body first before getting the truck back in service.”
Cancer prevention at the municipal level
Nearly all of the municipal fire departments in Wake County have committed to following the Lavender Report guidelines.
Most surround personal protective equipment, or PPE, which protect firefighters from serious injuries and illnesses through the use of garments, respirators, turnout gear, gloves, boots, blankets, gas masks and breathing apparatus.
None of this equipment is supposed to be worn inside the fire department, in or around kitchens or in personal areas in the stations. If they take it home, firefighters are instructed not to bring any of it inside their homes.
“All personnel are held accountable for adherence, with fire officers and command staff ensuring compliance,” said Jim Jones, the fire chief in Fuquay-Varina. He said firefighters are also supposed to launder their uniforms at the fire stations to reduce the risk of exposing their families to harmful carcinogens.
Currently, the Fuquay-Varina Fire Department does not have a second set of turnout gear, which would include a second individually assigned hood for firefighters.
After leaving an incident, firefighters use decontamination wipes on their skin and take a shower, changing into a clean uniform..
Fire Chief Mike Cooper in Cary said that once the gear has been contaminated, it is stored in a truck compartment, not in the passenger area
In Morrisville, firefighters must wear their full PPE and self-contained breathing apparatus during a fire until it is deemed safe to remove, according to Fire Chief Nathan Lozinksy.
Since 2016, Morrisville’s fire department has provided a second set of turnout gear for all staff.
“We also have a good stock of gear in case there is a need for a third set of gear,” Lozinsky said.
Smoking and use of tobacco products
Another risk for cancer is the use of tobacco products.
While all tobacco products are banned in many municipal buildings, firefighters can still smoke or use vapes in some firehouses.
In Holly Springs, Chief LeRoy Smith said firefighters are encouraged to smoke only in designated areas. The town has also limited public smoking in certain areas.
“If you’re a firefighter or employee for the town, you get your health insurance paid for free,” Smith said in an interview with The News & Observer. “What they’ve done is implemented a medical physical requirement and a smoking cessation waiver. So, if firefighters do smoke, they have to go through smoking cessation classes.”
Smith said this requirement has helped discourage people from smoking and using tobacco products altogether.
Chief Timothy Herman said in Apex, firefighters cannot smoke in the fire stations or trucks, but the town has no rules for smoking on government grounds, parks, recreation areas or public places.
Herman said he is also starting a health and wellness committee in the Apex Fire Department to focus on firefighters’ mental and physical health. This will include cancer prevention efforts.