FBU launch DECON campaign to protect against toxic fire contaminants

University of Central Lancashire researcher doing a test to determine the level of contamination on a firefighter’s protective suit

Fire contaminants are directly linked to and can increase the risk of cancer and other diseases. The FBU has launched its new trailblazing campaign DECON to inform firefighters on how to better protect themselves, their co-workers and family.

The FBU has always been at the forefront fighting for improved health and safety standards in the UK fire and rescue service.

For the last three years, the union has been working closely with researchers at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) to better understand the links between firefighters’ exposure to toxic contaminants and their increased risk of developing cancer and other diseases.

A report was published in November last year detailing the findings of this ground-breaking research so far, including a number of urgent recommendations for fire services to implement to reduce firefighters’ exposure to contaminants.

Some fire and rescue services have already begun making positive changes and the FBU is continuing to work closely with senior management to ensure that the report’s recommendations are applied across the UK. But there are also simple changes that firefighters can make at work and at home to help protect their health and the health of their co-workers and family.

What is DECON?

There has been a long-standing culture in the fire service where dirty kit would be viewed as a ‘badge of honour’ and worn with pride.

DECON aims to change this mind-set and educate firefighters on the dangers of toxic fire effluents and the steps to take to protect themselves and others from these harmful contaminants.

Using UCLan’s research, DECON encourages firefighters to take actions before, during, and after every fire incident to help reduce their exposure to contaminants.

A training package consisting of three short educational videos to watch, and discuss as a watch, will be available on the FBU’s website, along with posters and stickers sent to stations to reinforce the habits learnt during the training. We will be asking all fire and rescue services to officially adopt and deliver this training to firefighters all across the UK.

Firefighters and cancer

Every firefighter will know a co-worker or a former co-worker who has been diagnosed with cancer or another serious disease. The first video in this training package shares the real-life stories of firefighters who have suffered from cancer.

Our research with UCLan has found that UK firefighters are four times more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than the general population, and that skin, head and neck cancers are more common than average.

For Essex firefighter Sid McNally, this became a reality in 2012 when he was diagnosed with cancer at the base of his tongue.

He made a full recovery, but tragically his colleague and friend Steve who had been diagnosed with the same head and neck cancer died several years later.

Kerry Baigent, a former firefighter for Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service, was also recently diagnosed with cancer. She believes that if contaminants had been understood and taken seriously, and if the current recommendations had been in place during her time as a firefighter, it would have made a difference to her health.

It is always devastating when a member of our firefighting family develops cancer or other serious disease – but firefighters can help make this less frequent by taking contaminants seriously and following the precautions set out in DECON.

FBU and UCLan research

In the second video, firefighters will gain an understanding of the FBU and UCLan’s research findings from lead researcher Anna Stec, professor in fire chemistry and toxicity.

Firefighters will learn about the types of toxicants produced in fires, how they take in these contaminants, and how the toxins build up in the body and develop into cancer and other diseases. Our research has shown that one dominant cancer among firefighters is skin cancer, which indicates that skin is not necessarily protected and that most of the intake of contaminants is through dermal absorption. The risk to firefighters is not just through inhalation alone.

Some of the studies undertaken have shown that a body temperature increase of just five degrees increases the risk of the dermal intake of these contaminants by over 400%.

These findings have shaped the recommendations and DECON habits that firefighters will learn about throughout the training.

The FBU and UCLan is now building a database called the Firefighters Cancer and Disease Registry to prove the occupational risk of contaminants for firefighters and further develop decontamination approaches and methods to combat it.

It’s vital that every serving firefighter who undertakes the training and every retired firefighter who has suffered, or is suffering, from cancer signs up to this registry. Without the input from firefighters, we won’t be able to provide preventative health screening, support and the educational information that will protect firefighters’ health.

Learning new behaviours

After learning about the risks of contaminants and developing cancers, in the final video firefighters will learn about the eleven simple habits they should adopt to better protect their health.

These actions are intended to help decrease the risk to firefighters while attending incidents and to prevent cross-contamination on fire stations that puts co-workers’ health at risk.

While many of the actions focus on the steps firefighters should take at the station, the threat of contaminants does not stop at incidents or at the station doors. Firefighters should keep in mind that even if they can’t see contaminants, they are there and can unwittingly be carried home, putting their families at risk.

By following the habits set out in the video on the station, at incidents, and at home, firefighters will help minimise this risk.

Shaping the future of

the fire service

DECON isn’t a one-time event. It’s a change in behaviour for good – and to make a real difference, we need every firefighter across the UK to step up and commit to DECON throughout their career.

Once firefighters have completed the training, they should pledge to follow the DECON habits and spread the word about DECON by signing and sharing the DECON rollcall and talking about the training with other firefighters. This will help us to reach more firefighters and, ultimately, save more lives.

There is more work to do to understand contaminants and make firefighting safer – but DECON is a positive change that will help shape firefighters’ futures and the future of the fire and rescue service.

Riccardo la Torre, National Officer of the Fire Brigades Union, has been leading the development of the training at the union. He said: ‘Most firefighters will know a colleague who is battling, or has battled, with cancer. It affects us all in the fire service and can be devastating. This training aims to help make this less frequent. We’re looking forward to seeing it in action and hopefully helping save lives.’

Sid McNally, a firefighter who contracted cancer, concurred, saying that whilst ‘there’s lots of cancer risks you can have as a member of the public’, he ‘didn’t have any of those’ and says: ‘I just believe I was working in an environment that wasn’t doing me any good.’

He went on to say ‘you do get drawn into that work environment and you think that that’s all that matters but you have got a life outside of the fire and rescue service’, adding ‘but to make the most of that you need to be alive’.

FBU general secretary Matt Wrack also added his voice, saying that: ‘There are indications that the danger that contaminants pose could be very significant indeed, and it is likely that contaminants have already taken so much from the firefighting community. But with this training we can begin to fight back and improve safety for firefighters. All Fire and Rescue Services and every Chief Fire Officer should support this initiative and encourage employees to register.’

The training has been developed in tandem with University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), as part of a wider project. That wider project aims to better understand the links between contaminants and firefighters’ disease. It also includes a cancer and disease registry, which organisers want all serving and retired firefighters to sign up to, to help track and research these links.

Professor Anna Stec, professor in fire chemistry and toxicity at UCLan, who is leading on the research, said: ‘UK firefighters are frequently exposed to high levels of toxic chemicals during and after a fire. Our best practice report combined with this training, as well as our cancer and disease registry and national health screening, will allow us to increase awareness amongst firefighters of the impact of toxic fire effluents on their health.’