MFR Highlights Efforts Amid Cancer Awareness Month

Firefighters put their safety on the line every day as they respond to fires, traffic accidents, HazMat situations, high-angle rescues, and medical calls. As they help their community in times of need, they simultaneously expose themselves to chemicals known or suspected to cause cancer. January is Firefighter Cancer Awareness month and Mooresville Fire-Rescue is proud of its efforts to reduce firefighters’ exposure.

Cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted two large studies and found firefighters face a 9% increase in cancer diagnoses and a 14% increase in cancer-related deaths, compared to the U.S. general population. Firefighters can breathe in chemicals or get them on their skin and in their eyes. If their turnout gear is not properly cleaned or stored, chemicals on their gear and equipment (such as an ax) can contaminate apparatuses and fire stations.

Mooresville Fire-Rescue has a series of strict PPE decontamination processes depending on the incident. The gross decontamination process is used most often at fire scenes.

As firefighters attack the flames, the engine driver sets up the decontamination area near the truck. The firefighter(s) performing the decontamination procedure must wear medical gloves and an N-95 face mask. The contaminated firefighter is rinsed off, from head to boots. They’re then scrubbed with a brush and soap solution and rinsed off again. The decontamination team then begins removing the firefighter’s gear and gives them rubber gloves and a N-95 face mask to wear to prevent breathing in and touching any chemicals. Together, the firefighters disassemble the gear and separate into two clear bags. Outer shells of jackets, pants, and fire gloves go in one bag, while the inner liners and hoods go in a separate bag. Firefighters then use wipes to clean their face, neck, hands, and arms of any remaining chemicals. Their boots and helmets are also cleaned during the decontamination process.

Once every firefighter is decontaminated, the clear bags go into the back of the engine or ladder truck to prevent any chemicals from getting into the cab. Firefighters then wash that gear either at their fire station or one that has a special washing machine. Before placing their engine or ladder back into service, firefighters must shower, place their second set of gear outside the truck, and clean the interior of the cab while wearing gloves and eye protection.

“Mooresville Fire-Rescue takes the risk of cancer seriously. We start training firefighters on the decontamination process as soon as they begin recruit class,” said Chief Curt Deaton. “We have several decontamination procedures, depending on the response (fire, HazMat, live burn fires). Every firefighter must follow and take decontamination seriously.”

In 2018, the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act (H.R. 931) became federal law. It requires the CDC to develop and maintain a voluntary registry of firefighters to help link to existing data in state cancer registries.

A cancer diagnosis is emotionally and mentally difficult and can lead to medical bills piling up. The North Carolina Firefighter Cancer Benefit Program helps bridge the financial gaps that follow a cancer diagnosis. The program, funded by the N.C. Legislature, is available to active rostered firefighters, employed and volunteer, who meet certain conditions. There is no cost for firefighters or their Fire Departments.