Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on May 1, 2017.

Fast Track

Some of the national efforts underway to fight cancer in the fire service


While Boston’s aggressive moves to curb cancer in its ranks have gained widespread attention, other efforts underway nationally also aim to curtail the firefighter cancer epidemic.

“I’ve never seen change happen as fast on anything in the fire service as it has on the cancer issue the last couple of years,” said Pat Morrison, the assistant to the general president on health, safety, and medicine at The International Association of Firefighters.


Ongoing work includes:

Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN)
Founded in 2005, the FCSN provides one-on-one support and counseling to thousands of cancer-stricken firefighters and their families. The organization also distributes educational materials and offers extensive firefighter cancer awareness and prevention training across the U.S. In 2015, every member of the Boston Fire Department went through FCSN’s three-hour course.

Congressional firefighter cancer registry
Identical bills proposed in both the House and Senate call for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop and maintain a voluntary registry to track firefighters with cancer, and also to collect specific information on the number and type of fire incidents cancer-stricken firefighters worked. The hope is this data will help researchers better determine the extent and causes of the firefighter cancer epidemic. Both bills are now in committees.

Fire Protection Research Foundation study on PPE cleaning
In 2015, the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) embarked on a three-year project to validate methods for adequately cleaning personal protective equipment (PPE). Although the central question seems simple enough, embedded within it are dozens of trickier questions: How clean does PPE have to be for it to no longer pose a health risk? What types of PPE and PPE materials should be evaluated? What types of chemical and biological hazards should be tested?

When the project is completed in 2018, it will be applied directly to NFPA’s main cleaning standard, giving fire departments a better sense of how to effectively clean their equipment to minimize members’ exposure to potentially harmful substances.

Firefighter Cancer Cohort Study
Last summer, researchers from several institutions, including the University of Arizona and University of Miami, embarked on a 30-year study to closely track hundreds of new firefighter recruits from Boston, Arizona, and Florida. The study will provide researchers with detailed histories of each firefighter’s career occupational exposures and lifestyle choices and will be able to make the most meaningful correlations yet between firefighting and cancer. All previous fire service cancer studies have been retrospective, guessing at participants’ past exposure levels.

FPRF Campaign for Fire Service Contamination Control
This one-year project led by FPRF seeks to identify, clarify, and promote best practice information for contamination control, not just at the fireground but for all that firefighters do. Controlling harmful contaminants requires clear best-practice actions and a rethinking of equipment, apparatus, and stations. In July, the FPRF will host a two-day fire service summit with 50 leading experts to review and enhance the educational materials being developed on fireground contamination control, and identify gaps requiring further attention. With deliverables due later in 2017, the project will promote important educational campaign materials in support of a comprehensive mindset to reduce firefighter contaminant exposures.

The International Association of Firefighters (IAFF)
The IAFF has had a robust campaign underway for years to educate its members on how to best protect themselves. The union has a free online awareness program that teaches firefighters about fireground carcinogens, reviews routes of exposure, and informs firefighters on how they can reduce their cancer risks. The cancer topic is now widely discussed at every IAFF conference and meeting, and educational materials are sent out frequently.

“We are trying to get the message out through every kind of medium we have,” Morrison said.

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal