Firefighters are used to putting themselves in the line of danger. But as every firefighter will tell you, fire fighting isn’t about taking reckless or unnecessary risks. For a long time the immediate effects of fire and smoke from an incident itself has been considered the primary risk, but we now know that the toxic contaminants produced by fire can cause just as much harm long after the fire is out.
Words: Riccardo la Torre, National Officer, FBU
Fire contaminants present a huge risk to firefighter health. Research by the University of Central Lancashire, commissioned by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), has found that rates of cancer among firefighters who responded to their survey were four times higher than among the general public, and it’s thought that the key reason behind that higher rate is carcinogens present in firefighters’ working environments.
However, there are straightforward actions that firefighters can take that can help protect themselves and others. These include behaviours like keeping BA on until the job is done, and showering within an hour of returning to the station after attending a fire.
But unfortunately firefighters have been let down in the past. Factors such as a lack of information, as well as a lax culture, which has been allowed to prevail, mean that a lot of firefighters have not been fully aware of the importance of these actions. In fact, many firefighters will tell you that there was even a ‘badge of honour’ culture around not wearing BA or having dirty kit on after fires.
The Fire Brigades Union’s DECON campaign, developed as a result of the University of Central Lancashire’s Interim Best Practice Report into how we minimise firefighters’ exposure to toxic fire effluents, aims to change this. It provides clear, concise information on the actions that firefighters can take that will help reduce or remove the risk. The campaign includes training sessions and awareness-raising posters and stickers.
Since we launched the training in September we have had a great response. It has been great for all of us here at the FBU to see firefighters engaging with the campaign enthusiastically, with plenty of union branches delivering training sessions.
We are also hugely enthused to see a large number of Chief Fire Officers engaging with the campaign positively. If we are to fight the risks posed by fire contaminants as well as we possibly can we need everyone onside. It has been great to see the posters go up in fire stations and workplaces across most services and to see some working together with their local FBU reps on delivering DECON training resources.
I would encourage every firefighter to have a look at the DECON behaviours (viewable at https://bit.ly/2YAfinx), watch the videos, and ask their FBU officials about running DECON training in the workplace. Because, as much as anything else, fire contaminants are capable of not just harming us – they are also capable of harming our families, if we carry them back into our vehicles and through the house door.
As part of my role on this campaign I talk to many firefighters with cancer or other diseases thought to have a relationship with fire contaminants. Sadly most firefighters will have been affected by cancer, or know a workmate who has. A cancer or disease diagnosis linked to fire fighting isn’t an inevitability – we can all play a part in protecting ourselves and each other.
Together, we can make our profession safer.