WICHITA, Kansas – Every year, nearly 16,000 firefighters in Kansas risk their lives, facing not just smoke and flames, but a danger they can’t see.
Research now shows that toxic gases and chemicals they’re exposed to over time multiply their risk of cancer.
After 25 years on the fire lines for Sedgwick County, retired Captain Tom Strunk was diagnosed with kidney cancer that spread to his lungs.
“The surgeon said it was the size of a dinner plate,” said Strunk.
Wichita firefighter, Captain Jay Tully, who’s also a competitive athlete, was just 50 when diagnosed with prostate cancer. Both men can’t help but wonder if their jobs played a part.
“It’s very possible,” said Strunk. “There’s no history of cancer on either side of my family.”
In fact, a study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health shows that firefighters do have a much higher cancer rate than the general public, especially in digestive, oral, respiratory and urinary cancers.
“It’s because of the carcinogens found in the smoke, the asbestos that they’re going through,” said Maggie Ward of the Via Christi Cancer Center.
And not just at hazmat calls, but house fires that burn cleaners, paint, and plastics, creating a chemical soot that coats firefighters and is absorbed by the skin. What’s more, heat speeds up that process, and firefighters face temperatures inside a burning building up to 1,200º F.
“One time, it’s probably not going to make a difference, but if it’s a lifestyle throughout your career, yes, it’s going to make a significant difference,” said Ward.
That’s why the Via Christi Cancer Center is teaming up with a group of local firefighters to change how things are done.
“Right now, fire departments are not doing a whole lot to prevent cancer,” said Tim Millspaugh, who’s started a new Kansas chapter of the Firefighters Cancer Support Network.
Eleven precautions urged by the Firefighters Cancer Support Network:
- Use SCBA from initial attack to finish of overhaul. (Not wearing SCBA in both active and post-fire environments is the most dangerous voluntary activity in the fire service today.)
- Do gross field decon of PPE to remove as much soot and particulates as possible.
- Use Wet-Nap or baby wipes to remove as much soot as possible from head, neck, jaw, throat, underarms, and hands immediately and while still on the scene.
- Change your clothes and wash them immediately after a fire.
- Shower thoroughly after a fire.
- Clean your PPE, gloves, hood, and helmet immediately after a fire.
- Do not take contaminated clothes or PPE home or store it in your vehicle.
- Decon fire apparatus interior after fires.
- Keep bunker gear out of living and sleeping quarters.
- Stop using tobacco products.
- Use sunscreen or sun block.
The group is asking all crews, including those in Wichita, to adopt several precautions: perhaps most important, wearing their air packs longer at a fire scene, even after the flames are out, to protect them from lingering smoke and fumes.
FCSN is also recommending firefighters use wet wipes at a fire scene to clean any chemicals off their skin right away, instead of waiting, sometimes hours, to get back to the fire station and take a shower.
“When I first came on, it was a badge of honor,” said Captain Steve Rudd of the Sedgwick County Fire Department. “Your gear was dirty, your helmet was dirty. You look like you’d been out there, you’d seen it, you’d done it.”
Now, the focus is getting the dirty gear off quickly. Starting this year, county firefighters are trained to remove the cloth hood they wear over their head immediately after each fire, instead of using it repeatedly like in the past.
“We’re going to start swapping those out because that’s direct skin contact,” said Rudd.
“We don’t have a specific protocol for that,” said Wichita Fire Captain, Kelly Ross, who heads up safety training.
But he says most of his firefighters do have two hoods and are encouraged to change them often.
Neither the city, nor county can wash all the gear more than just a few times a year. Because of the special fabric and the careful way it must be laundered, it’s a long process.
“Six to eight hours,” said Rudd.
Cancer prevention advocates say the ideal way to guarantee clean gear is to issue each firefighter two complete sets, but at $4,100 dollars a piece?
“It’s something that’s very cost prohibitive, as many members as we have on the job, said Ross. “There’s very few departments across the U.S. that issue more than one set of gear,” said Ross.
Wichita does comply with another recommendation, using only vinyl upholstery in fire vehicles, not cloth that can absorb contaminants and expose firefighters again and again.
While that’s still a problem for Sedgwick County’s fleet, both departments have changed how they store gear that’s smoky or dirty– keeping it only at fire stations, not in personal vehicles or homes, and away from where crews eat and sleep.
“The old days we’d probably go in there and type our reports with our bunker gear on,” said Ross.
That’s perhaps the biggest challenge: changing old habits for a new generation.
Veterans like Tom Strunk will help spread the word. After his surgery in October, his CAT scan for cancer is now clear.
Jay Tully is also in remission, but they hope younger firefighters will practice prevention.
“I wanna help them have a little bit more longevity in their lives,” said Tully. “You never know what’s going to happen, but if it’s preventable, that’s something I’d like to pass on to those guys.”
To raise awareness, the Wichita Fire Department held a meeting with its command staff just a few weeks ago to reinforce some of the ways to limit their crews’ exposure to carcinogens.
Click here to read through the research on firefighter cancer rates and the precautions.
BONUS VIDEO | Compilation of firefighters at work