Safety & Health

What If I Told You Your Gear Was Causing Cancer? Part 2

We should be calling for more research

Educate yourself on your most basic piece of equipment. (Unsplash, Matt Chesin)

By Larissa Conroy

After I submitted Part 1, I was able to sit back and reflect on what I had written. The thoughts from my “firefighter brain” started to flood in, and I started to doubt my own article and my own research. Why? Everything I researched was, to the best of my knowledge, correct. So, why was I questioning what I had written? I took a few days to sit with that feeling and finally came up with a solution. We are taught a certain way of doing things in the fire service when in fire school. Then, we get hired with our respective departments and learn the way they want us to do things. Any deviation from that should be highly questioned because “that’s not the way we’ve always done it.” Right?

While reviewing Part 1, I found myself thinking, “We need to use our bunker gear for live fire training.” How else are we going to prepare ourselves for actual fire? Trust me, this one left me feeling the most conflicted. I understand the need for training, and I support live fire training fully. I feel there is no better way to train for the job than to put yourself into an actual fire. You have to put yourself into fire during training before you encounter the real thing. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take measures to protect ourselves from potentially harmful substances that may be in our gear. I have seen people show up to training in shorts and cut-off T-shirts. While it is definitely comfortable and not as hot, this is not the way we respond to fires. You remember the old saying, “Practice like you play,” right? This is also taking away that extra layer of protection that your station clothing may provide as a barrier between you and your bunker gear.

When it comes to your gear causing cancer and the carcinogens from a fire causing cancer, I believe that every single firefighter on the planet is going to choose their gear over nothing. If you don’t, please reevaluate your decision-making process. It is the lesser of two evils. Until further testing is done to the gear, we have nothing to go on but the word of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) (no provided research). We have to reasonably believe the IAFF and manufacturers when they say that while our bunker gear does contain PFAS chemicals, they are not harmful to us. However, while we take them at their word, it would be nice if they provided the proof of their claims. So, if you’re presenting me with the decision that something may cause cancer and the other thing will most definitely cause cancer, guess which one I am going to pick.

“You accepted the risks of the job when you signed up for it; if you can’t take that, then leave.” I have a huge problem with this statement. It is essentially telling me that have I accepted the risks of the job with no intentions of changing it or making it better should I have the opportunity. We come into the fire service and we are told from day one, “Leave it better than you found it.” With advancements in modern science, we are given the tools to research just about anything. If you are coming into the station day in and day out and not educating, what are you doing to make the fire service better than you found it? I know members who can pull apart a K-12 and tell me about every single component of the saw and how it runs, yet if I ask them to tell me the basics about their bunker gear, they can only tell me information they learned when they were in fire school. This tells me, essentially, that you have done no extra research since you left the fire academy. You educate yourselves on all of our saws and all the equipment that you could potentially use every day, but you put on your bunker gear a minimum of once a shift and you can’t tell me more than it has an outer shell, a thermal liner, and a moisture barrier. How do you expect to leave the fire service better than you found it when you aren’t educating yourself on the most basic piece of equipment?

I can’t claim that I’m leaving the fire service a better place than I found it if I am sitting on information that could be useful to further the health of firefighters. We are doing all this work to prevent cancer exposure with exhaust removal equipment in the stations, deconning our gear after every fire, and having vertical exhaust systems in the trucks. What if we find that our bunker gear not only has PFAS chemicals in it but they can affect us and we have been doing nothing about it? We should be calling for more research, more studies, and more testing. After being a part of a bunker gear selection committee with my department, I am kicking myself that I didn’t come across this research sooner. Now, all I can do is hope to get the word out there to as many people as possible and, hopefully, the right people are listening.

Larissa Conroy is a firefighter/paramedic for the Orlando (FL) Fire Department. She has an A.S. degree in emergency medical services; Fire Officer 1 certification; and several specialty certificates including Hazmat Technician, VMR Technician, Confined Space Technician, and many others.