Albuquerque FD Aims to Reduce Firefighters' Exposure to Carcinogens

Cancer is “an epidemic in the fire service,” Albuquerque Fire Rescue Chief Paul Dow said. According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, cancer is now the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths among firefighters in the U.S.

Albuquerque Fire Rescue is implementing new policies and procedures to reduce the amount of harmful exposure to carcinogens that its firefighters face daily. The new procedures were detailed by Albuquerque Fire Rescue Chief Paul Dow and Mayor Tim Keller in a Nov. 27 news conference, according to an Albuquerque Journal news story by Steve Knight.

Cancer is "an epidemic in the fire service," Dow said. According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, cancer is now the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths among firefighters in the United States.

"Today's structure fires are more dangerous than ever before," Dow said. "Although we don't have as many structure fires as we did maybe 20 or 30 years ago, the fires we respond to burn hotter and faster because of the fuels inside. Now, you're looking at synthetics and plastics, and they burn at a higher temperature and give off acrolein, benzene, hydrogen cyanide, carbon dioxide, and deadly carcinogens that our firefighters are exposed to. That’s what is killing our firefighters."

Keller cited a statistic that cancer has caused 61 percent of the career firefighter line-of-duty-deaths in the United States from Jan. 1, 2002, to March 31, 2017.

"This hits close to home in Albuquerque, as we have eight active firefighters, some in their 20s and 30s, who have been diagnosed with cancer," Keller said.

City officials and AFR members worked together to research best practices in reducing the harmful exposures faced by firefighters, and AFR has put many of these methods in place in the past year. The fire department is installing space to better separate bays for firetrucks and other vehicles from firefighter living quarters in an effort to keep diesel exhaust fumes, a known carcinogen, from entering crew quarters. The project, which will be funded with about $110,000 from general obligation bond funding, requires two doors to separate vehicle areas from the living area. The two-door system lessens the likelihood of contamination inside the living quarters.

Crews at Fire Station 1 have a fire-scene gear and equipment decontamination policy, where firefighters brush off debris and soot from their gear, and a process by which gear is cleaned by the department's Logistics Division. There are wet wipes in each firetruck as well to allow firefighters to clean soot from their faces and necks. These procedures are expected to lessen the chances of firefighters bringing carcinogens into the fire station.

Firefighters' T-shirts and pants are also contaminated when they respond to structure fires, so the department plans to install washers and dryers in fire stations to allow members to wash their clothing in an effort to keep them from taking contaminated clothing home to their families.

The department is using an $89,825 state fire protection grant to purchase 800 new National Fire Protection Association standards-compliant flash hoods and 145 structural helmets to provide an additional level of protection from contaminants. Every firefighter will be issued a new flash hood, and any leftover will be placed into the flash hood exchange program.

Beginning in January, every firefighter will be required by the department to complete an annual medical exam, instead of completing one every other year.

Dow said the cultural idea of a dirty fire helmet or gear as a badge of honor must change. "It's something that I feel we can prevent," Dow said. "It's hard to sit there with one of your firefighters and talk to them about the . . . treatment, and you know what that road looks like. I've sat with our firefighters when they are receiving chemotherapy, and they're nodding off and trying to recover. It's terrible, and I don't want to see it again."

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