As a career track, professional firefighting is prestigious, competitive, and, as anyone familiar with the job’s basic description knows, quite dangerous. A combined 90 firefighters, including 32 professionals, are thought to have perished on the job in 2015 alone. Over 68,000 firefighters of all professional standings reported an injury in the same year, with 43 percent of those occurring during fire ground operations.
Of course, even one firefighter dying or suffering serious injury is too many. It is an extremely unfortunate aspect of a field that requires employees to rush toward situations from which the average citizen would run. That the injury and death numbers are not even higher is a testament to the training, technologies, and strategies developed throughout the service’s long, storied history.
More to the point, while firefighting tools and techniques have seen continual refinement over the years, the world firefighters strive to protect does not always follow the same trend towards improved fire safety. It would seem at first glance that contemporary homes are better protected from fire than ever, but this is not always the case. Numerous aspects of modern life, including building and manufacturing trends, lend unique dangers and challenges to the scenes firefighters respond to — many of which may follow them for years and even decades after the event of a fire.
How contemporary construction materials contribute to a new class of fire danger
As EHS Today notes in a piece on the dangers of modern firefighting, today’s world is in some ways more fire-safe and -conscious than it has ever been. Insurance stipulations and municipal laws alike require the conspicuous placement of fire and smoke sensors, which themselves are more advanced than the home alarm systems of yesteryear, and fire safety codes and building regulations exist to give citizens easy egress from burning buildings. Furthermore, as noted above, firefighters also benefit from a continually refined stream of knowledge and technology, making both the unit and the individual fighter more effective as time goes on.
In other ways, however, fire safety has regressed. Because modern homes are lighter and constructed of thinner materials, and because they have generally eschewed lumber in favor of “engineered joists and other man-made parts,” EHS Today says it is easier for a blaze to climb to a ceiling or breach a wall. In turn, this can set off a series of structural catastrophes that makes it harder for firefighters and citizens to escape.
Citing research from safety consulting and certification company Underwriters Laboratories, the site also says modern windows fail twice as quickly as their older counterparts do. In an interior fire, sudden glass breakage — from structural failure or an attempt to escape — can add an influx of flammable oxygen to the air-starved room, potentially resulting in a destructive backdraft. Meanwhile, the heat from an exterior fire can similarly cause window failure, allowing the fire to spread indoors through the newly created hole. Because of this, homeowners in areas with a high amount of wildfire activity are strongly advised to avoid windows made of tempered glass and vinyl framing, either of which can lead to total window failure and further fire spread under a relatively low amount of heat.
The result, EHS Today says, is a world where homes are constructed of materials that “burn hotter and collapse faster,” despite the wealth of legitimate innovation where fire safety and public knowledge are involved. For residents and firefighters alike, this enhanced potential to spread and create structural problems can represent a major safety concern. Though older homes certainly come with challenges all their own — many have spaces between walls that give fires room to develop, and others may lack appropriate fire dampening features in their ductwork, for instance — this danger of modern firefighting at least partially dispels the myth that new homes are “more fireproof than ever.”
Synthetic materials, toxic smoke: fire retardants, other building materials, represent long-term danger for firefighters
Flammability is not the only health and safety concern firefighters face in battling a blaze, however, and the danger does not always stop once a crew leaves the fire ground. As the rising “secondary” death toll following the attacks of September 11, 2001 illustrate — some 1,140 people present at the attacks and subsequent cleanup have died of linked cancers and other illnesses, and an estimated 400,000 persons are thought to be ill due to exposure — the after-effects of a destructive fire can have serious consequences for the health of those exposed. Furthermore, symptoms can take a very long time to surface.
At issue are the same synthetic materials mentioned previously. Alongside the tendency to create hotter flames faster, their smoke is often filled with a number of harmful particles, many of them directly linked to cancer. Similar synthetic materials are often used in the furniture, electronics, and appliances held within homes, increasing the chance that a firefighter might encounter certain toxins during a call.
If the construction materials used in modern homes combine into a “perfect storm” for the spread of fire, the circumstances behind even minor house and business fires are slanted similarly against firefighter health. The toxic particles released in the thick, black clouds firefighters face are incredibly small, with diameters ranging between .1 and 10 microns. For reference, the larger number of the two is roughly equivalent to .0004 inches. At sizes that miniscule, Fire Rescue 1 notes, it’s “no wonder” that many could slip beneath a firefighter’s PPE and gain access to the skin beneath. Although the widely held notion that pores “grow” in hot conditions is a myth, there’s little question that firefighters sweat profusely beneath all that gear. This could allow toxins that accumulate beneath protective gear greater access to “spread” over the body, in turn touching the various glands, vessels, and nerves hidden beneath the skin.
These synthetic-borne particles undoubtedly have a large role in firefighting’s disproportionate cancer rate–firefighters are at a 14 percent increased risk for dying of cancer—compared to the general population. Just as disturbing, it is thought that as many as 63 percent of firefighters will contract some form of cancer in their lifetimes, with certain types of cancer presenting more frequently among the firefighting population. A growing base of research suggests firefighters are at greater risk of prostate and testicular cancers, for instance, and they are statistically proven to have a greater risk of multiple myeloma, a blood/plasma cancer with an average five-year survival rate of roughly 49 percent.
Exposure to flame-retardants may also contribute to long-term health problems for firefighters when absorbed via toxic smoke. Research suggests the polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBEs) found in many common household items appear in firefighters’ blood at an “extremely high rate,” according to The Hill. Already banned in 12 U.S. states, PBEs are widely linked to thyroid cancer, an illness that has itself appeared at disproportionate rates in firehouses across the country. Distressingly, flame retardants used as replacements in states where PBEs are banned may also have seriously adverse health effects. For instance, chlorinated Tris, which was banned from use in children’s pajamas decades ago, is “associated with cancers, memory loss, lower I.Q.s and impaired motor skills.”
Firefighters deploy tracking apps to document exposure, fight lack of “presumptive” laws
Combined, these two factors represent the true challenges and potential costs of responding to a fire scene. Every exposure — stressful and dangerous enough on its own, especially with modern construction materials intensifying the blaze — is another reason to worry over consequences that may not come for months or years after the flames have been extinguished.
Fortunately, technology’s value does not stop when the fire does, either. Firefighters have increasingly used “tracker apps” to record exposure to various harmful or cancerous materials, communicable diseases, traumatic situations, and other common hazards. Besides helping firefighters understand what maladies they may be at risk for due to their professional experience, trackers serve a noble and highly useful purpose on the bureaucratic end, helping document a direct link between their exposures and illnesses they may suffer later in their careers.
This is important because of so-called “presumptive” illness and injury laws, which provide significant protections to firefighters harmed by fires or secondary consequences. Depending on the state, situation, illness discussed, among numerous other context-specific factors, these laws, or a lack thereof, can make a firefighter’s battle with illness easier or significantly harder, respectively. In one instance, a firefighter may be entitled to free medical care when the law “presumes” an illness common to firefighters came from their time on duty; in another, the law may be the difference between a firefighter being able to draw worker’s compensation while battling a related illness or depending on donations to survive.
Thus far, the number, scope, and coverage of presumptive laws varies widely from state to state and illness to illness. Currently, 33 states offer their own takes on presumptive cancer laws, with some purposely using broad language (Indiana’s “cancer that is caused by a known carcinogen to which an individual is at risk for occupational exposure” clause is notable in this area) and others limiting presumed illnesses to highly specific types under certain circumstances.
Whether a firefighter’s state offers presumptive coverage, however, tracking exposure is smart at best and an absolute necessity at worst. In the worst case, documentation of exposure is something a firefighter can use to help their physicians provide better, more targeted healthcare services; even more encouraging, however, is that it may be the factor that allows them to gain coverage for a non-presumed illness or disability.
Like all branches of first response, firefighting is always changing. In many ways, the field’s evolution feels like a classic give and take: though many aspects of fire code and fire safety awareness have unquestionably improved for the better, other parts of the job may be even more dangerous or challenging than in the “old days.”
As EHS Today notes in their building materials article, however, the focus on lighter, cheaper, faster-to-build synthetics likely is not going away anytime soon. Until science builds a less fire-prone, slower-burning, less-smoky version of the manmade components comprising our homes and businesses today — and make one that is less expensive to produce — what we currently have will likely remain the standard. For firefighters, one hopes this means better coverage in the form of presumptive illness laws, and continued improvement in the technologies that let them register, if not outright avoid, toxic smoke.