How a group of Missouri firefighters are reducing their exposure to carcinogens
Firefighter-paramedic Jacob Wiemann recalls when dirty gear and helmets used to be a badge of honor – now he's reminding firefighters to clean up in order to enjoy retirement
By Sarah Calams
Sponsored by LION
Last year, a one-hour local news special featured an in-depth look at why so many Boston firefighters are succumbing to occupational cancer. The emotional special, "Boston's Bravest: Facing a Hidden Killer," reported that more than 190 Boston firefighters have died from occupational cancer over the last 28 years.
The Boston Fire Department also released additional videos detailing the dangers of occupational cancer. Throughout the videos, firefighters who have been diagnosed with cancer appear fit, healthy and in the prime of their lives. However, a startling statistic rolls across the screen: 67 percent of Boston firefighters will face a cancer diagnosis.
The issue of cancer in the fire service does not discriminate – it affects both large and small departments, urban and rural, paid and volunteer.
Jacob Wiemann, a firefighter-paramedic with Lee's Summit Fire Department in Missouri, remembers how it was once viewed as a badge of honor to have the dirtiest gear and helmet when he first joined the fire service.
Now he knows better, and he says it's important for every firefighter to understand it's not a badge of honor at all.
"Having a clean and shiny helmet is better than having a dirty helmet," Wiemann said. "If you don't, you're killing yourself."
This change, while seemingly a small one, is just one of many reasons why LION, a PPE and training equipment provider, is inviting firefighters to take the "Not In Our House" pledge to raise awareness and provide information to help firefighters reduce their risk of exposure to carcinogens.
Implementing changes for better health
Wiemann, who has been with the department for 14 years, has a unique and well-rounded background, starting with an undergraduate degree in nursing. Later, he went into active duty in the Navy and worked in a large hospital setting.
After seven and a half years of working as a full-time nurse, he became a firefighter-paramedic with Lee's Summit – while additionally serving as a nurse and in the Navy reserves. Wiemann has now been a nurse for 21 years, and he is also a member of the fire department's health and wellness committee. Additionally, he serves as a tactical medic and is an executive officer for a combat hospital with the U.S. Marine Corps.
Lee's Summit Fire Department, Wiemann said, decided to take the "Not In Our House" pledge after completing research for the general health and wellness of their members.
"Our health and wellness committee spawned out of our accreditation process," he said. "I was digging and doing research, and I saw all the data. We wanted to not just put some things on social media and just say what firefighters should do."
As a result, the department moved forward with the pledge. They formed a policy regarding exposure reduction and created videos on how to implement the changes.
"We're also continually talking about it in order to make that culture change," Wiemann said. "When you discuss changes offline or on social media, it's accepted. When you put it into practical use, certain areas of the implementation become difficult, and the old habits and culture is where it's still engrained."
The department's health and wellness committee, made up of about 10 to 12 members, was started five years ago.
Ideas from the committee, as well as information from LION, helped the department take the necessary steps in reducing their exposure to fireground toxins.
Minimizing exposure to stop cancer at the door
Similar to what Boston has done, Lee's Summit now has two sets of gear so they have a backup set when one set needs to be washed. Ultimately, this important change minimizes potential exposure to toxins.
"We wanted to make sure everyone had two fully functioning sets so that initially after a fire you could properly take it off, bag it up and get it washed," Wiemann said.
The department implemented a plan with their support services to get gear properly washed and returned. In addition, officials are also stressing the importance of making the apparatus a clean environment and placing signs from LION in the firehouse emphasizing how every firefighter must stop cancer at the door.
"We're also providing the appropriate wipes to clean off at the site and continuing with the education of gross decon at the site in regard to gear, washing the boots, washing the helmets and getting back and taking a shower," he said.
The lightbulb moment for the department, Wiemann said, was the realization that these changes are happening at even the largest departments – like Boston.
"If the big dogs are doing it and making these changes, then we can, too," he said. "If you see a bigger suburb that's very innovative and moving forward all the time, that's great, but it doesn't have a big effect for some of the older firefighters and traditionalists. When you see these old-time departments, like Boston and New York, are making these changes and adjustments, it helps."
And if that's not enough motivation, then what comes after a firefighter takes their final call should matter even more.
"This is such a great career," Wiemann said. "You want firefighters to enjoy the fruits of their labor and have a long retirement. Departments need to start implementing these changes so firefighters can enjoy life after the fire department."