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Bartow, Fla. (April 1, 2019) — Polk County Fire Rescue (PCFR) has made a significant commitment to its members by investing in equipment, remodeling of stations and training to prevent cancer-causing exposures to its firefighters. Now the agency is asking its members to make a similar commitment in agreeing to use the tools and training provided to them.

Firefighting is one of the more dangerous professions, with a growing body of research and data showing that job-related exposures have in causing chronic illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease. Cancer caused 61 percent of the career firefighter line-of-duty deaths between January 1, 2002 and March 31, 2017, according to data from the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). A study of more than 30,000 firefighters across the nation by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) provided significant evidence that firefighters are at increased risk of certain types of cancer as a result of occupational exposure.

Raised awareness and exposure prevention efforts are cost-effective means to reduce occupational cancer risk. The fire service must increase efforts to educate members about safe work practices. This includes proper training, proper use of protective clothing and proper use of approved respiratory protection during all phases of firefighting.

PCFR encourages its members to take a Preliminary Exposure Reduction pledge, and is the first agency in Florida to give members who sign the pledge a  F.A.C.E (Firefighters Attacking the Cancer Epidemic) Cancer bracelet. The bracelet serves as an important daily reminder to the agency’s members to do their part in ensuring they do not allow dangerous carcinogens from the fire ground to contaminate themselves, their coworkers and their families.  

“Ensuring both immediate and long term safety of our personnel is a top priority for this division,” said PCFR Fire Chief Tony Stravino. “Firefighters are nearly 10 percent more likely to contract cancer and are subsequently 15 percent more likely to succumb to a cancer-related cause of death than the general U.S. population. We want to do all that we can to help our members not to become part of that statistic. With the money and time that the Polk County Board of County Commissioners has invested into this project, we felt it equally important for our crews to do their part with this pledge.”     

The Preliminary Exposure Reduction process uses techniques to reduce soiling and contamination levels on the exterior equipment used by firefighters following incident operations. The process begins while firefighters are on–scene. Members are hosed down and scrubbed with soap while in full bunker gear, followed by a wipe-down of all exposed areas of the body. While this does not completely decontaminate personnel, data shows this step removes approximately 85 percent of the contaminants. They are required to follow up with a full shower within one hour of leaving the scene. Finally, all exposed gear is to be washed in specialized wash machines following National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) instructions. 

PCFR and the Board of County Commissioners look to add about a dozen new fire rescue stations over the next 10 years, each equipped to better ensure that its crews can completely rid their bodies and gear of harmful carcinogens. These new stations will include washers and dryers to remove contaminants from the employees uniforms, special firefighter protective clothing washer and dryers to remove contaminants special positive pressure ventilation in areas of the building from contaminants entering living quarters just to name a few.

The Florida Firefighters Safety and Health Collaborative formed a statewide FACE team in 2016. PCFR is joining 14 other firefighting agencies throughout Florida with its new FACE team. Agency personnel who are committed to involvement for effective change join FACE teams. These are the formal and informal leaders in the department, as well as influential members of both unions and management. The team includes sworn members, as well as mechanics, investigators and varied ranks both active and retired.  These individuals will be involved in risk management, risk reduction and overall committed to building sustainability.

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