Fight cancer with decon: PEF member manages fire instructor decontamination training, raises awareness
BY KATE MOSTACCIO
Firefighters risk their lives every time they enter a burning building or approach a fire situation. They know the risks when they pull on the gear, climb into the trucks, and respond to the calls. But what about the unseen risks, such as carcinogen exposure?
PEF Member Timothy Graves, a fire protection specialist with the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control’s (OFPC) Operations Support Branch, manages the New York State Volunteer Firefighter Enhanced Cancer Disability Benefits Program.
“I was hired to assist in establishing the workflow,” he said. “I developed forms for fire departments to communicate with New York state on the use of the benefits and to ensure that fire departments are participating and giving the volunteer fire service the benefits that they deserve.”
Proposed and championed by fire service associations across the state, the Volunteer Firefighter Enhanced Cancer Disability Benefits Act took effect Jan. 1, 2019, and requires every fire district, company, and department establish a program to fund claims of eligible volunteer firefighters who are diagnosed with or succumb to certain types of cancer.
The Operations Support Branch of OFPC supports national firefighter certification testing, state firefighter certification, administrative support for training, facilities management at the fire academy, and cancer prevention —which is what Graves has recently been spending most of his time working on.
“We’re all exposed to soot,” Graves said. “All firefighters have a 15 percent higher chance of being diagnosed with cancer. Some cancers it’s double that. There are a lot of things we can do to help bring our chances down.”
One of those things is gross decontamination, he said. The process involves a hose, Dawn detergent, and a good scrub of the turnout gear. Graves said you could think of it like washing a firefighter in the same way you would a car.
“You can remove up to 85 percent of those contaminants,” he said. “PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), we breathe those in and that is a fast track exposure to chemicals, giving us a really strong exposure to these carcinogens. Cleaning off gear on the fire grounds is lessening our exposure.”
Graves said an EMT wouldn’t put used medical gloves back on and firefighters need to adopt the same mentality that dirty turnout gear is equally as dangerous. By training fire instructors, that information will eventually trickle down to every department across the state.
Beyond cleaning their turnout gear, Graves said post-fire wipes for firefighters’ skin are also being used to combat carcinogen exposure. “Our skin is very porous,” he said. “The warmer skin gets, the more absorbent it gets. Every five degrees it gets 400 percent more absorbent.”
Fire instructors are regularly exposed to smoke from hay and pallet burns at training facilities. “That smoke is just as toxic,” Graves said. “This affects everyone. The state fire administrator signed an SOP saying all live burns will go through this gross decon process.
“We as firefighters tend to put everyone else before ourselves,” he said. “It’s time for us to put ourselves first for once.”
Every county will receive three gross decon kits and a supply of wipes, Graves said. He is also traveling through the state to train firefighters about the decontamination process.
“The state fire administrator and his executive team have been very supportive since I brought this idea to them,” Graves said. “They let me run with it. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
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