January is Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month, and Fire District 3 in Battle Ground is working to educate the community about what can happen to firefighters in the field.
Zane Norris, a firefighter in the district, has led the charge to help raise awareness of the long-term damage firefighters can sustain without proper precautions.
“It’s our responsibility to get the word out to not only the public, but to educate individuals who don’t know about it,” said Norris. “For the individuals who do know, we need to remind them that we are heroes going into houses to save people, but at the same time, when the fire’s done, we’re heroes as well because we have to deal with all the toxins and debris that affects us later on.”
A recent example is the death of Clark County Fire District 6 firefighter and paramedic Joe Killian, who served for 26 years. Killian was diagnosed with multiple myeloma shortly after he retired about four years ago. The type of cancer is common among firefighters.
“Joe used to say that being a firefighter was the best job in the world,” said District 6 Fire Chief Kristan Maurer in a news release. “He loved it because he had the ability to turn a bad thing into a good thing.”
A processional and memorial service for Killian is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 18 at the Liberty Bible Church of the Nazarene, 12401 NE Salmon Creek Ave., Vancouver. The processional will leave the Clark County Fairgrounds area after 10 a.m., with a service scheduled for 11 a.m., the release said.
Norris said that the campaign to raise awareness has received positive feedback from the community and other firefighters.
“What’s nice about Fire District 3’s community is that the citizens are so supportive and acknowledging what we do on a daily basis,” he said. “We’re sacrificing ourselves in our service to them and they’ve been very thankful for the work we do.”
To limit the chances of cancer, Norris said there are a number of things a firefighter can do. He advises them to wear their full personal protective equipment (PPE) and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) through the entirety of a fire. The equipment is especially important during the overhaul period, when crews put out hot spots that would potentially reignite after a fire has occurred.
“Unfortunately, with the way houses are built and the hydrocarbon-based components, couches are usually made of carbons which are filled with toxic materials when they start burning,” Norris said.
After putting out a fire, the team has to go to the fire station or home to shower the carcinogens off. Norris recommends firefighters wash their body down with a hose and use decon wipes on the neck area, which he said is a common spot for cancer to occur. A person’s face and hands also need to be wiped, as they easily absorb carcinogens. Firefighters should also wash their clothes as soon as they get home, Norris said.
There’s a common slogan firefighters use called “shower within the hour” after they fight a fire, he said. The crew also should wipe down their PPE, SCBA, and seats in the firetruck with soap and water, as well as decon wipes.
Aside from showering and cleaning equipment, Norris also recommends scheduling a yearly physical with a doctor.
“Firefighters are thought of as tough guys, but at the same time, it’s so important to go and get those physicals done,” Norris noted. “It’s something people are taking advantage of, which I’m very happy about.”
Another important step firefighters should take is to fully document all the fire chemical exposures within their personal exposure reports, which can be found on placards on the side of commercial structures. The placards indicate what chemicals would be present if the building experiences a fire.
Norris said firefighters used to keep the soot on their face because they thought it was “cool,” but “nowadays we’re finding out that is exactly what’s killing us firefighters, so we should be cognizant of the fact that stuff that burns has those carcinogens that are just so deadly in so many ways.”
An in-depth guide about Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month can be found online at iaff.org/cancer-awareness-month.
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