It is fitting that we are paying tribute to and re-examining the lessons of the Charleston Sofa Super Store fire during Safety and Health Week.
Five years ago, nine firefighters died in that fire; those deaths were tragic and preventable. That so much attention was given to learning and fixing the causes of those deaths, is a testament that the loss of life was not in vain. It is one of the things that makes me proud to be a firefighter.
Yet if I were to report here that nine, or even 18, firefighters died of cancer today, it wouldn't draw nearly the media or industry attention that the Sofa Super Store fire did. I've come to believe it is simply human nature that our attention is drawn to the most dramatic events.
While just as formidable a foe, cancer or heart disease doesn't have the heroic narratives and the breath-taking images as do large fires.
But firefighters — volunteer or career, retired or active — do battle heart disease, cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. Often times, they lose those battles. And they lose those battles more often than they do the battles against fire and structure.
Last week the World Health Organization said that fumes from diesel-engine exhaust will cause cancer in humans. WHO previously listed diesel exhaust as a probable cause of cancer.
I doubt if few are surprised by this finding; I'm not. I do find the announcement worrisome given how much time firefighters spend near idling diesel engines. It represents another in a long line of threats to firefighter health and well being.
I find it more worrisome that we smoke, drink too much, eat poorly, don't sleep enough, don't clean our turnout gear enough, don't exercise enough and don't always wear our SCBA when we should. I'm guilty of many of these, which is made all the worse because I know better.
Thankfully, the fire service is not only taking notice of some of these serious health concerns, but taking action.
In 2010, the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health launched a multi-year research program to examine firefighters with cancer. The study is looking at 18,000 active and retired career firefighters to draw some sound conclusions about the occupational health risks of firefighting.
Before that, a 2006 study from the University of Cincinnati determined that firefighters had a greater chance of developing several types of cancer than does the general public.
And probably most encouraging on the public-policy front is the recent ruling by NIOSH that 50 forms of cancer are associated with exposure to the debris from the World Trade Center. This should mean that those who volunteered during recovery and cleanup will qualify for compensation to cover the expense of their illnesses.
What is noteworthy about the NIOSH move is that it did not wait for all of the evidence to come in; it made the decision based on the incomplete evidence available. Some have and will criticize this move. Even if decades of data shows no link between the World Trade Center and cancer, NIOSH made the correct call.
As with safety, when it comes to firefighter health individual choices are where the rubber meets the road. So here's my soapbox sermon in one paragraph.
Eat more veggies than meat and starch, quit smoking, drink less (no seriously, try), exercise three times a week, sleep seven hours a day, wash your turnouts after each fire, wear your SCBA (even during overhaul), stay away from processed and fast food, and seek help for mental-health stress.
Like safety, firefighter health isn't something we can unpack and repack once a year like holiday decorations. Just like that guy in the neighborhood who refuses to take down his lights, we have to live with health choices every day.
As with any behavior change, it means doing the right things enough times consistently until it becomes habit. Switching to healthy habits is as much a part of going home every night as is fireground situational awareness, skills training and protective equipment.
Here are a few additional resources that you may find interesting. Stay healthy and stay safe.
- The National Volunteer Firefighter Council and the International Association of Fire Chiefs teamed up to build a web site dedicated to Safety and Health Week.