Surviving Your Career

Fire Chief Freddy Howell, Kings Bay, GA
Everyone Goes Home® State Advocate

A couple months ago I attended a class entitled "Surviving Your Career" at the St. Marys, Georgia Fire Department and learned that "Taking Care of Our Own" is even more important than I thought. The information was presented by Kurtis R Wilson, Captain on the Jacksonville, Florida Hazardous Materials Team. Captain Wilson relayed shocking details of numerous Jacksonville firefighters being diagnosed with cancer, battling cancer, or who had already passed away from cancer or complications from it. A majority of information showed the comparison of firefighters being present at specific fires together. These were veteran firefighters who had risen through the promotional process and were in ranking positions and looking forward to retirement, as many of us are today. However, instead of enjoying their last few years in a rewarding position or enjoying their retirement, they are battling a life-threatening disease.

Captain Wilson presented overwhelming evidence showing that we have been exposing our firefighters to significant dangers as they work in clean up teams (CUT). As you know, clean up involves salvage and overhaul. For years, a majority of firefighters and departments never wore SCBAs during this phase of the operations. What is more shocking is that we still have departments out there with firefighters not wearing SCBAs during this phase of the operations.

Captain Wilson pointed to the finding from the study performed by the Seattle Fire Department on cancer. Seattle Fire Department had more than a third of the firefighters hired before 1977 develop cancer of numerous types. I did a little research of my own and if you want to be more stunned, Google "firefighter cancer" and see all of the reports that document the same information from different sources. Lastly, to understand the impact, Google "firefighters dies of cancer" and see how many stories across the country are published in newspapers on a daily and weekly basis about local firefighters who have passed away from cancer.

Listen up officers: if your firefighters are not wearing SCBAs when taking part as a CUT, then they are being exposed to a highly toxic atmosphere which has been proven to produce cancer. Their chance of developing cancer as a result of this exposure is greatly increased. The sad fact is that it may be too late for many of us old timers to reverse what has been done, but it's a sure thing we can change the outcome of our present and future firefighters. It is time for you to develop a policy that will require the donning of SCBAs when operating in a CUT!

The International Association of Firefighters published in 2007 that more union firefighters died of cancer than from heart attacks or fire-related injuries combined. Nationally, there were 38 union firefighters who died last year from cancer, 16 from heart attacks and 10 from fire-related causes. So where is the data from 2008 and 2009? What will the statistics be for 2010? What are we doing to change those numbers? I have read that some states have included cancer in with the heart and lung law for firefighters but why hasn't every state?

To sum up, we need to all continue to support the 16 Life Safety Initiatives starting with Number 1! Advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety! Advocate for Cancer to be added to the Lung and Heart Law in every state and on a federal level. Support those suffering with cancer and never forget those who have passed. Finally, make everyone wear SCBAs working in CUT.

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