Cancer and the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department

firefighters, cancer,

Above: Screenshot from Jason Curtis’ film about San Diego firefighters and the occurrence of cancer.

The San Diego Fireman’s Relief Association has produced a short 8-minute documentary about the occurrence of cancer within the membership of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, interviewing 15 firefighters who talked about their job and the disease. Many of them looked back knowing what they know now, and wished they had done some things differently.

(UPDATE March 2, 2017: the film was available at the website of the company hired to make the film, but it has been removed until the cancer awareness program associated with it has been rolled out. It may be available again on YouTube or another site in two to three months, according to Robert Bunsold, a board member of the Relief Association.)

The San Diego FD primarily deals with structure fires. The mix of by-products of combustion they are exposed to is different from what a wildland firefighter works in, but unfortunately we don’t know what the significance of that difference is, if any. There are carcinogens in wood smoke but much work still needs to be done to determine the short and long-term effects on wildland firefighters.

Structural firefighters generally wear breathing apparatus (BA) when they are making an interior attack on a structure, and often when they are on the exterior. But wildland firefighters never wear BAs on a vegetation fire because it is not practical. They can be working on a fire miles from their truck for up to 16 hours, but the air bottles only last for minutes.

Some wildland firefighters wear a bandana or dust mask over their nose and mouth, thinking, incorrectly, that they provide some level of protection from particulates. And they have no effect on carbon monoxide and other dangerous gasses.

The smallest and most dangerous particulates in vegetation fire smoke are so small that if one was near an 8-foot high ceiling in a room with perfectly still air, it would take 8 hours for it to fall to the floor. These particles can easily go through a bandana or a cheap mask and make their way to the lungs. Much more expensive respirators with certain types of replaceable filters could provide better air, but they are hot to wear and create too much resistance as the air is forced through the apparatus.

wildfire firefighter smoke
A firefighter works in the smoke on the Water Tower Fire in Hot Springs, SD March 1, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

There is no registry that tracks their exposure or health during and after their careers. Another bill was introduced in Washington this month to create a registry, but the one introduced a year ago died a quick death, and this newest one has far fewer co-sponsors and so far looks unlikely to pass.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+

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