Increasing education, increasing prevention

Firefighter training

In the past, a soot-darkened helmet might have been worn as a firefighter’s badge of honor. But recent studies concerning the incidence of cancer among firefighters are changing the culture in the firehouse.

A multi-year study completed in 2015 found that firefighters had a greater number of cancer diagnoses and cancer-related deaths than the general population.

The study looked at nearly 30,000 firefighters from the Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco fire departments. It was a joint effort led by researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and done in collaboration with researchers at the National Cancer Institute and the University of California at Davis Department of Public Health Sciences. The study was supported in part by the U.S Fire Administration.

The studies have been a “game changr,” according to Chris Parsons, a St. Paul fire captain and president of the Minnesota Professional Firefighters.

“When you look at kind of the state of the fire service, as little as six or seven years ago, it was kind of taken for granted that firefighters get cancer at a higher rate. At that time, there hadn’t been a lot of studies that had been done to prove that,” Parsons said. “We were able to finally point at scientific evidence that shows what we had known all along in the fire service, that is, a lot of our coworkers are getting cancer.”

Change in approach

In addition to being able to better support pushes for changes in policies at the state level, it also spurred action on the education and prevention front.

“Firefighters throughout the state are getting so much better at decontaminating themselves because they see there is scientific evidence that we are being exposed,” Parsons said. “It is more in their mind, for their own health, for the well-being of their families, that they need to take care of themselves and their coworkers.”

At Riverland Community College in Austin, Wanda Staska, the program manager for Riverland’s Emergency Medical Services & Fire Training Programs, has seen many changes in how firefighters are trained. Awareness about the increased risk for job-related cancer has grown.

Firefighters-in-training now learn how to take off their equipment in a way that minimizes exposure to harmful chemicals. They learn about the importance of cleaning their equipment and themselves in a timely fashion after fire calls.

For new firefighters, having clean gear isn’t a change in culture. It’s something they learn to do at the same time they learn to fight fires.

A tragic, early death

That wasn’t the case when Wanda Staska’s husband, Brian, trained to be a firefighter. Brian Staska had been a firefighter for more than 30 years for the Austin, Brownsdale and Owatonna fire departments. He also worked as an instructor for more than two decades and as fire training coordinator at Riverland Community College.

Brian Staska was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer that started in his appendix and spread through his stomach.

“He went into the ER one night for massive pain and that is when they found it. It was all over inside of his abdomen,” Wanda Staska said. “They don’t know how long he had it before he was diagnosed.”

Surgery wasn’t an option. Staska underwent chemotherapy treatments. He died in October 2017 at the age of 53, about 18 months after he was diagnosed.

Before his death, the Staskas developed a firefighting cancer awareness class that Wanda still presents.

The importance of clean gear wasn’t something Steve Shapira learned early in his career, either. Going through the fire service, Shapira said he received no training on occupational cancer.

But things are changing. In Rochester, cancer awareness training is now in its second year. Spearheaded by Capt. Caleb Feine, the department has been updating firefighters on policy changes with regard to cancer prevention.

Feine became interested in the topic following a two-year officer’s program at the National Fire Academy. Through the program, he helped create a policy on cancer and cancer prevention at RFD.

“I’m trying to leave my mark, teaching people to be safe,” Feine said. “Yes, this is a dangerous job. We have the tools to do it. We have to be safer.”

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With increased awareness about the higher cancer risk for firefighters, the Rochester Fire Department has adopted practices in an effort to limit exposure to harmful chemicals and toxins at fire scenes.

Firefighters take the following steps to stay safe:

• Diligent SCBA use. Firefighters are being encouraged to use their self-contained breathing apparatus more often and especially during overhaul — when the active fire is out but there is still smoldering.

• Rinse off protective gear at the fire scene when possible. Weather-permitting, firefighters are using hoses to rinse off their gear.

• Bag up dirty gear before leaving a call to keep the cab clean. Some departments across the country practice something called “clean cab concept,” which means gear and air tanks are kept outside of the cab and put on at the scene.

• Frequent washing of protective gear. No longer is dirty gear a badge of honor. Washing of uniforms, and wearing gloves while putting the wash into the department’s extractor, is happening more often as each firefighter has a second uniform. Gear is washed anytime it is exposed to smoke, as well as every three-month quarter.

• ”Shower within the hour.” Cleaning off within an hour from returning from a fire scene is important. An initial lukewarm rinse is recommended before taking a hot shower.

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