Firefighters Across Florida Get New Protection Against Cancer

Aug 8, 2018

Credit firefightercancersupport.org

More than 400 fire departments across Florida are getting help in reducing the cancer rate inside the Fire Service.

Nationwide, 70 percent of firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2016 passed away from cancer, according to data from the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis – who’s also the state’s fire marshal -- says the cancer rate among firefighters runs 15 percent higher than the general population, and involves all types of the disease.

“Things that are very harmful catch on fire, so the side effects of these particular elements become part of the air that our first responders and firefighters are breathing in, getting on their skin, and it’s touching their equipment,” said Patronis.

The state is teaming up with the University of Miami’s Sylvester Cancer Center to distribute 42 hundred kits in the coming weeks. The kits are funded by one million dollars to the Firefighter Cancer Mitigation grant program. They’re available for each fire company with pumping capability at the departments which applied for them – including Pensacola, where Ginny Cranor is Chief.

“We’re hoping to have one for all of our engine companies, six of them,” says Pensacola Fire Chief Ginny Cranor. “I don’t have a date on when we’ll receive them, but the last update I got was that we may receive them this month or next month.”

Fighting fires is dangerous enough, but there are also hazards after the fire is out.

“There’s contamination and exposure to chemicals that are carcinogens,” Cranor says. “In addition to carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, all of these gases and chemicals and toxins absorb through our skin. We could inhale them if we’re not wearing the air packs; and all of these little chemicals form worse chemicals inside of your body.”

Although she has no definite numbers, Cranor says there are Pensacola-area firefighters who have developed work-related cancers. And it’s becoming more of a problem, because of the materials which are now in homes – plastics, microfibers and other synthetics.

“When it burns, it releases more toxins and chemicals than in the [1920s or 1930s] when you had cotton, or leather with cotton batting inside of your furniture,” said Cranor. “I think that the danger to come is just what we’re really about to face.”

Getting ahead of those issues to knock down the cancer threat is at the core of the program. One major part is changing the “firefighter culture,” meaning that having dirty bunker gear is no longer macho.

“If every time you took your helmet off, if you didn’t just have this big, black smudge on your fingers then your helmet was too clean, right?” Cranor said. “There really has – just even in the past five years – been a change in the way firefighters feel about their health, and how important it is that they keep their gear clean. Because that little black smudge on your hand is full of those toxins.”

Pensacola Fire Chief Ginny Cranor.
Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

The kits are not only designed to lessen a firefighter’s exposure to cancer-causing particles, but also to keep most of the carcinogens outside the firehouse. They actually contain some pretty basic items: a scrub brush; buckets, duct tape, dish detergent, spray bottles, skin wipes, and adapters for washing off people and equipment using a fire hose.

“The really key part of the kits are the educational materials that help keep our gear clean and making it a priority,” says Cranor. “And that’s changing the minds of firefighters in the state [and] certainly in Pensacola to really focus on cancer prevention.”

At some point, says Pensacola Fire Chief Ginny Cranor, there may be some renovations to existing fire houses – to match up with those now under construction – all  aimed at making them more cancer-unfriendly.

“We have to be careful about just staging your fire gear next to the tailpipe of a fire engine; you’re exposing your gear to all that diesel soot,” Cranor says. “We have ventilation in our gear storage areas, and we’ll definitely see some more initiatives like that in the future.”

Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center in Miami has a website, www.sylvesternewbadgeofhonor.com, which contains materials and other resources to help educate firefighters about cancer risks and how to cut them down to size.

“When it burns, it releases more toxins and chemicals than in the [1920s or 1930s] when you had cotton, or leather with cotton batting inside of your furniture,” said Cranor. “I think that the danger to come is just what we’re really about to face.”

Getting ahead of those issues to knock down the cancer threat is at the core of the program.  A major part is changing the “firefighter culture.” That means having dirty bunker gear is no longer macho.

“If every time you took your helmet off, if you didn’t just have this big, black smudge on your fingers then your helmet was too clean, right?” Cranor said. “There really has – just even in the past five years – been a change in the way firefighters feel about their health, and how important it is that they keep their gear clean. Because that little black smudge on your hand is full of those toxins.”

The kits will not only be used to lessen a firefighter’s exposure to cancer-causing particles, but also to keep most of the carcinogens outside the firehouse. The kits contain some pretty basic items: a scrub brush; buckets, duct tape, dish detergent, spray bottles, skin wipes, and adapters for hosing off people and gear.

“The really key part of the kits are the educational materials that help keep our gear clean and making it a priority,” says Cranor. “And that’s changing the minds of firefighters in the state [and] certainly in Pensacola to really focus on cancer prevention.”

And at some point, says Pensacola Fire Chief Ginny Cranor, there may be some renovations to existing fire houses -- similar to those now under construction – to make them more cancer-unfriendly.

“We have to be careful about just staging your fire gear next to the tailpipe of a fire engine; you’re exposing your gear to all that diesel soot,” Cranor says. “We have ventilation in our gear storage areas, and we’ll definitely see some more initiatives like that in the future.”

Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center in Miami has a website, www.sylvesternewbadgeofhonor.com, which contains educational materials and other resources to help educate firefighters about cancer risks and how to reduce them.