Editorial

They’re some of the bravest heroes in our community, prepared to rush into harm’s way to save someone they’ve never met.

All firefighters know their job comes with a daily risk of death or injury. But flames and smoke aren’t the only dangers they face.

Firefighters face a much higher rate of cancer than the average population because of the carcinogens they’re exposed to on the job, particularly with the rise in plastics and other synthetic materials in homes that burn during a fire, releasing toxic chemicals that linger on firefighters’ clothes and skin, putting their health at risk months or years down the line.

Fortunately, this is one occupational hazard that can be avoided. Armed with better information about factors that lead to cancer among firefighters, departments across the nation – including the Victoria Fire Department – are implementing simple safety measures that can greatly reduce first responders’ exposure to carcinogens.

The old practice of wearing soiled gear back to the station is being phased out thanks to awareness of the dangers presented by soot and chemicals present at fires, especially when combined with human skin’s greater tendency to absorb these contaminants in heat. Victoria Fire Department firefighters now take off their gear and wipe down at the scene to get rid of the chemicals. Victoria has also added better equipment to more thoroughly clean gear after a fire.

It’s our hope that unsafe handling of gear will eventually go the way of lead paint as more departments realize how crucial these kinds of precautions can be. Workplace safety is a continually evolving goal, and what’s currently something of a novel approach can and should become standard practice.

Protecting firefighters from cancer is too important of a goal for any department to be left out. This includes the many volunteer fire departments in the Crossroads and around the nation. Volunteer firefighters face special challenges in avoiding contaminants – not only because these departments are often underfunded and unable to afford state-of-the-art sanitation equipment but because volunteers frequently have to transport contaminated gear in their personal vehicles or even wear soiled clothing back to their regular jobs.

Fire departments of any size should take precautions whenever possible to protect the health of firefighters, but volunteer departments are especially in need of funding and support from their communities to provide an appropriate standard of care. Awareness is the first step in prevention, and as more people become aware of the silent killers firefighters face, we need to push for corresponding safety measures. It’s the least that these heroes deserve.

This opinion reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate’s editorial board.

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