NY stepping up outreach efforts to protect firefighters from threat of cancer

Posted 18 January 2023 at 4:18 pm

Newly announced decontamination protocols will reduce exposure to toxic contaminants

Photo by Tom Rivers: Firefighters are shown battling a fire in Holley on Jan. 6, 2020 at an apartment at the corner of routes 237 and 31. The fire displaced about a dozen residents in four apartments.

Press Release, Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Office

Governor Kathy Hochul today announced the State’s Office of Fire Prevention and Control will begin new outreach efforts to help protect New York’s firefighters and their families from the threat of cancer.

State Fire officials initially launched a similar outreach program in early 2020, which was placed on hold due to the pandemic. This new initiative coincides with January’s Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month, raising awareness among the fire service on how to develop life-saving protocols for cancer prevention, and to support those who’ve already received a cancer diagnosis within their fire departments.

“The state’s firefighters bravely risk their own lives and safety every day to protect their fellow New Yorkers,” Governor Hochul said. “Sadly, cancer is a serious threat to the health and wellbeing of all of our fire service members, and we are committed to ensuring that these heroes have the most up-to-date guidance and information so they can enjoy a long, safe career and live a healthy life.”

Studies have shown firefighters are at a higher risk of cancer than the general public, largely due to their exposure to an increased level of toxins found in smoke at structure fires. To ensure New York’s firefighters are not only aware of this threat but also know how to limit their own risk, State Fire officials developed basic protocols for decontaminating firefighting gear following a response call and will be traveling throughout the state to promote their use by firefighters.

Research has shown that fire service members can take simple and inexpensive steps to reduce their exposure, as well as protect their families, to toxins and other carcinogens by up to 85 percent.

State Fire officials have begun working with counties across the state to schedule Firefighter Contamination Reduction and Cancer Prevention classes. At these meetings, State Fire will distribute firefighter decontamination kits to attendees. These kits contain information on decontamination immediately after incident response and items, such as a five-gallon bucket, post-fire wipes, hose, detergent, brush, and spray bottle.

“The brave women and men of New York’s fire service protect us from danger every day,” said NYS Homeland Security and Emergency Services Commissioner Jackie Bray. “However, too many lives of firefighters are being lost to cancer. During Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month we are ramping up efforts to educate the fire service and mitigate their risks of exposure to carcinogens found in smoke. I am proud of our State Fire team for leading the way on this initiative, providing in-person training sessions and distributing decontamination kits to fire departments across the state.”

If firefighting turnout gear is not decontaminated properly after a fire, firefighters risk exposing harmful chemicals to their firehouses and homes, potentially harming co-workers and family members. According to two studies conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), firefighters are currently being diagnosed with cancer at a nearly 10 percent higher rate than the general public and experiencing cancer-related deaths at a nearly 15 percent higher rate.

To combat these trends, DHSES and OFPC have established basic, inexpensive protocols which will go a long way in limiting firefighters’ exposure to harmful chemicals often found in smoke.

If exposed during a response, firefighters should:

  • Perform on scene gross decontamination, stop the exposure, and stop the spread of contaminates to the apparatus and station.
  • While on scene, use post-fire wipes to reduce exposures.
  • Shower as soon as possible and put on clean clothes.
  • Wash tools, equipment, and apparatus after fires.
  • Transport gear in non-porous containers such as a clear garbage bag.
  • Wear only clean gear, including hood.

Starting this month, State experts will travel across New York State to bring these protocols directly to firefighters via in-person educational sessions at local fire departments. At each session, firefighters will view a live demonstration (click here) of the new decontamination protocols, a new educational video that details the protocols and the risks facing firefighters and have an opportunity for a Q&A with OFPC personnel involved in developing the protocols. Additionally, OFPC is expanding its entire roster of firefighting classes and trainings to include a section on cancer awareness and prevention education.

New sessions are being scheduled on a rolling basis. Firefighters looking to attend or host an educational session can view the State Office of Fire Prevention and Control’s training calendar, or contact their county’s fire coordinator.

“We are thrilled to continue our program educating members of the State Fire Service on immediate steps they can take to protect themselves following an incident response,” said NYS Fire Administrator Jim Cable said. “Sadly, cancer is now the leading cause of firefighter deaths in the nation. Our goal is to reduce occupational illness by educating our brothers and sisters in the fire service on specific measures they can take to reduce exposure to contaminates and lower their health risks.”