Hidden Risks for First Responders Hidden Risks for First Responders
By Brandon Butler, Director/Chief Instructor, TRS On the day we all tend to step back in remembrance, it is also important to look to... Hidden Risks for First Responders

By Brandon Butler, Director/Chief Instructor, TRS

On the day we all tend to step back in remembrance, it is also important to look to the future and what is impacting our careers. When a First Responder starts their career we typically think and watch for the obvious dangerous things involved in our profession. Violent people, fire, hazardous materials and biological hazards, just to name a few. What we don’t look for are the things that can slowly sneak up on us. Two of these issues are mental issues and cancer.

Let me start with mental issues such as depression, stress, anxiety and PTSD that are causing suicides by our brethren in alarming numbers. We are seeing risks to our ranks that have never been seen before. Ask any First Responder if they have been affected or know someone who committed suicide in their field and I can almost guarantee you will get an answer that they do. Our Cities and Municipalities are cutting back on mental health care due to funding; this is a nationwide trend. What we also see is a lack of understanding and negative persona that most people have about mental issues, which is a huge addition to the problem. I consistently watch agencies put together programs of peer support that are doomed to fail by the burdensome bureaucratic hierarchy and attempt to cover civil liability rather than have a system that is available and truly confidential to help our responders. What is not realized by most of those who are not in the emergency service field is what each responder has been exposed to, what we see and deal with every day. A first responder copes with the worst situations society has to offer. Most people who are not in this field would have a hard time coping with witnessing a person dying once in a lifetime, imagine seeing this yearly, or monthly, or even weekly. It’s time to see this for what it is–a legitimate medical and social issue that must be addressed to prevent the loss of fellow responders. It’s time to take a serious stand on mental stress and conditions for the people in our field. Here’s a great article on the subject with links to resources:Firehouse article on Mental Issues in the Fire and Medical Services.

firefighter_cancer_statsAnother issue is the one thing no one wants to hear, “You have cancer.” Although exposure is higher for Firefighters, cancer risks are prevalent for all types of First Responders. The risks are just now becoming known and more are being discovered as we progress in our careers. What is seen as a risk today was normal operations 10 to 20 years ago. For Firefighters, the old dirty gear and helmet (a sign of a salty firefighter), were slowly killing us off from the cancer causing chemicals left behind from fires. Today, we are told to clean up after a fire, wash our turnouts immediately and shower at the soonest possible convenience.

In recent years, the cancer risks for Firefighters and First Responders has increased dramatically. “Pinpointing the cause of cancer is extremely difficult because firefighters are not exposed to just one agent. They are exposed to multiple cancer-causing agents. Because of the multiple exposures and the multiple routes of exposure — they inhale carcinogens and carcinogens are absorbed through the skin — it is also highly unlikely for firefighters to get only one type of cancer,” Grace LeMasTimes reported. It’s more likely a firefighter will develop testicular cancer compared to the general population. (Excerpt from Firefighter Cancer Support -Taking action against cancer in the fire service.)

What can you do when it comes to cancer?

  1. Use SCBA from initial attack to finish of overhaul. (Not wearing SCBA in both active and post-fire environments is the most dangerous voluntary activity in the fire service today.)
  2. Gross field decon of PPE to remove as much soot and particulates as possible.
  3. Utilize Wet-Naps or baby wipes to remove as much soot as possible from head, neck, jaw, throat, underarms and hands immediately and while still on the scene.
  4. Change your clothes and wash them immediately after a fire.
  5. Shower thoroughly after a fire.
  6. Clean your PPE, gloves, hood and helmet immediately after a fire.
  7. Do not take contaminated clothes or PPE home or store it in your vehicle.
  8. Clean interior of fire apparatus after fires.
  9. Keep bunker gear out of living and sleeping quarters.
  10. Stop using tobacco products. (All First Responders)
  11. Use sunscreen or sun block. The importance of annual medical examinations cannot be overstated — early detection and early treatment are essential to increasing survival. (All First Responders)
  12. DOCUMENT. Even if your department does not document fire and smoke exposures, this does not mean you shouldn’t for yourself. Keep info on exposures with incident numbers and times.

Of course, some of the best resources we have is our trusted peers. Seek discussion and help on the subjects and don’t be arrogant enough to think that you can deal with it alone. It’s not considered a defeat to ask for help when you need it the most.

It doesn’t matter which badge you wear. Every First Responder feels the loss and stress of losing one of our own. Remember to always help our brethren and get help when you need it, no one understands what we do, like we do.


Firehouse article on Mental Issues in the Fire and Medical Services.

Firefighter Cancer Support 

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