Firefighters: Heroes in the Line of Fire - NFCR


Firefighters: Heroes in the Line of Fire

All consuming, unforgiving, destructive: adjectives easily attributable to the symptoms, treatments, diagnosis and battle with cancer. These descriptors also paint an accurate rendering of the infernos into which American fire fighters, America’s Bravest, venture unflinchingly as they perform their duty.

In a recent exposé, experts uncovered a disturbing trend which has been understated if not ignored in the fire-fighting community at large until recently. Among fire fighters in prominent cities like Boston, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, cancer rates are now soaring.  In fact, cancer is now the number one long-term killer of fire fighters in America.


National Fire Prevention Week was observed October 8-14, 2017. As part of the “Every Second Counts” campaign, the National Fire Protection Association looks to educate people on how to prevent fires as well as how to plan ahead so as to quickly and safely escape the flames and smoke as quickly as possible.  Time is important. When fire destroys a building, it’s easy to forget that the entire structure and all the materials therein are being incinerated. When this happens, caustic and carcinogenic chemicals are released into the air. Chemicals like hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide, termed the “toxic twins,” are well documented for their ability to contribute to cancer; but they are not alone.


An image firmly emblazoned in the collective consciousness of our nation, the weary and battle-wizened hero, a patina of soot and sweat shading his cheeks and brow and a determined expression his face.  A romantic notion, but beyond that image, firefighters are now seeing the harsh truth. “When I started on the force 14 years ago, being a smoke eater was a badge of honor. We wanted to wear our SCBAs (self-contained breathing apparatus) as little as possible; it’s how you showed your strength.”  Captain Andrew Brown of a major metropolitan fire department shared with me in a recent interview.  “Guys who were particularly tough about it we called smoke eaters with leather lungs,” he added ruefully acknowledging the irony in the dubious moniker.

As it happens the soot was never badge of honor, rather a harbinger of things to come. According to Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn, the concern is what he describes as the rise in multiple system cancers (myelomas, leukemias, non-Hodgkins lymphomas etc.), being diagnosed in firefighters at a 5-alarm rate.

When Technology Isn’t an Ally

Fire fighters use Four-Gas Monitors to determine what chemicals are in the air when they arrive at the scene of a blaze. This informs how long they must wear self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBAs). These protocols are standardized, but many firefighters are not properly trained and aren’t familiar enough with the protocols designed to keep them safe from repeated exposure to chemicals in the line of duty. Sadly, it’s a habit among firefighters to turn off their SCBAs as soon as the fire is contained while they assess the structure looking for the cause of the fire by pulling down ceilings and walls and exposing themselves to high concentrations of trace toxins still present at the scene.

It’s more dangerous to be in a fire today than 30 years ago. The technology present in most homes including furniture coated with flame retardants is a lethal adversary. Captain Brown notes, “Everything in your house is designed to keep it from burning; but when it does, its hotter, nastier and faster. It takes longer to light it but once it does it’s worse. Your couch is killing the fire fighter, not the structure or the building falling down …. It’s the chemicals used to make and treat your furniture.” When they burn, they are poison.  


In a departure from prioritizing the memorization of ‘parts per billion’ gas concentration protocols in order to prescribe the wearing intervals of SCBAs, those in charge are now supporting the idea that the cleaner the firefighter, the better. Fire-fighting authorities are now requiring crews to observe some simple steps to mitigate undue risks:

  • Personnel wearing SCBAs with air flow turned on until clear of the incident entirely.
  • Using pre-moistened wipes to clean faces & exposed skin areas as soon as is practical.
  • “Shower within the hour “at the fire house.
  • Wash all clothing and gear at the firehouse in specialized washing machines that protect gear and are made with parts that will not absorb carcinogens deposited on the gear.
  • Never wash gear at home to keep toxins from harming family members
  • Installing personal saunas in firehouses so that employees can sweat the toxins out of their pores as both a proactive and reactive measure to address any possible exposure.


The oldest firehouse in Philadelphia, Engine 37, was built in 1894. Over time, budgetary issues have precluded many houses like this one from necessary infrastructure updates to include tools that fire fighters need as the fight against exposure to carcinogens evolves.

The approximate cost to purchase and install new NFPA 1851 compliant washers and dryers adds approximately $10,000 to a station’s budget. And though eating habits are improving vis-à-vis the stereotypically meat and potatoes firehouses, these infrastructural updates are necessary elements in balancing the equation to ensure firefighters live healthier, longer lives.  


Protecting firefighters from exposure to long-term cancer-causing elements inherent in the line of duty is an urgent need. Tending to this need isn’t just physically responsible, but fiscally. If firefighters are NOT being diagnosed with cancer they are not going out on terminal government funded disability. Instead, they are doing the job they love and saving those we love. As the link between exposure and diagnosis continues to become more crystallized, these heroes will persevere. We can only hope that, in the future, when the smoke clears, we’ll see those same determined faces safely gritty with resolve behind their SCBAs rather than obscured by lethal soot.