Preventing Cancer in the Fire Service: What We Can Do to Reduce the Risk


By Marc Scheipe, Executive Vice President at TargetSolutions

Firefighting is dangerous. Everyone appreciates the perils of this valiant profession and the bravery our everyday heroes exhibit each time they run into a burning building.

What everyone hadn’t understood until more recently, however, was the fact firefighters face an additional threat beyond flames, smoke, and heat. That threat is cancer, which is now considered the No. 1 killer of firefighters, according to the International Association of FireFighters.

This alarming news is supported by the fact that over the past decade, more than 60 percent of the names added to the IAFF Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial have died from occupational cancer. Leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma are some of the most common killers among firefighters.

At TargetSolutions, our customers often seek guidance on how to lower their risk profiles. Without question, training is critical. But this goes deeper than training. This goes to the culture of every fire department. To reduce cancer rates, the fire service needs to change longstanding traditions and mindsets around proper utilization and maintenance of turnout gear, as well as post-incident hygiene and exercise, among other things.

Many departments have recognized the need to this type of change and are now spreading the word and enforcing policies that mandate awareness and compliance with this shift in culture.

Firefighting Increases Cancer Risk

The good news is that widely-circulated numbers are not accurate. For example, some sources have erroneously reported that firefighters are 250 percent more likely than the general population to develop cancer. Fortunately, this is inaccurate. A CDC/National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report posted in 2017 says firefighters have a 9 percent greater chance of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14 percent higher chance of dying from this disease than the rest of the population.

TargetSolutions is a strong advocate for identifying ways to minimize the cancer risk for firefighters. Training is essential, but it's also crucial for fire departments to enforce rules and provide constant reminders of how sensible precautions can make a difference. This often requires overhauling old traditions. For example, firefighters have long promoted the image of fighting fires with soot on their faces and gear. Similarly, firefighters are often anxious to remove their masks and breathe in fresh air after fighting a fire, overlooking the dangers of lingering smoke.

Of course, these habits were developed before it was known how risky they could be – but today, it's crucial for firefighters to thoroughly decontaminate themselves as soon as possible after fighting fires. The responsibility to educate personnel falls on the departments that are employing them.

Educating Firefighters on How to Reduce Their Risk

Having top-quality equipment is the first line of defense for firefighters, not only against fires but also against cancer. But when the gear isn't thoroughly cleaned, toxic residues can remain. The National Fire Protection Association publishes the NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting. This is the recognized standard on how to care for personal protective equipment. To make this information more accessible, TargetSolutions has released a training course that covers the material in NFPA 1851.

Critical precautionary measures include firefighters having PPE and SCBA on completely before entering and after exiting any fire, using wet naps to remove soot from the face and neck immediately upon exit, showering within an hour of an incident, properly cleaning gear on a regular basis, and working out within 24 hours of an incident to expedite chemicals through sweat. Awareness of these precautions can save lives.

As we learn more about the cancer risks for firefighters, it's important to provide helpful information, like this white paper from TargetSolutions, to help educate these everyday heroes in every way possible. This comes down to education, having the right equipment, and making sure that safety protocols are followed. After all, what good is a policy if it’s not enforced? Firefighters' lives are at risk every day simply by doing their jobs. The least we can do is help to minimize their risk of developing deadly diseases. TargetSolutions is committed to helping firefighters stay safe and healthy.

About the Author

Marc Scheipe serves as Executive Vice President of TargetSolutions, which is the public sector business unit of eLearning and performance support software leader Vector Solutions. Prior to working at Vector Solutions, Scheipe oversaw Sage Software as President, North America. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. While serving in the Navy, Scheipe attained the rank of lieutenant commander and held various roles in operations, training, and maintenance during a 10-year military career. Scheipe is a TOPGUN graduate and FA-18 strike/fighter pilot with more than 1,800 flight hours. Scheipe is a native of the San Francisco Bay area, but now resides in Atlanta. He is married with three children.

About TargetSolutions

TargetSolutions, a Vector Solutions brand, delivers award-winning, real-time training and record-keeping solutions to the fire services, emergency medical services, risk pools, cities and municipalities, law enforcement and public works industries. The company provides engaging, accredited, online training courses, cutting-edge software applications and dynamic performance-management solutions to help make organizations safer, more capable and more compliant. For more information, visit Follow us on Twitter @TargetSolutions and on Facebook at

About Vector Solutions

Vector Solutions, a leader in eLearning and performance support, provides award-winning SaaS solutions for the architecture, engineering, construction (AEC), industrial, facilities management, public safety, IT and education fields. Its brands, RedVector-Convergence Training, TargetSolutions and Scenario Learning, deliver continuing education (CE), training, technology and performance-management solutions using the latest innovations in learning technology to create safer, more capable, more compliant organizations. Its extensive online and mobile learning library exceeds more than 5,000 courses written by 200 subject matter experts and reaches over 5 million professionals worldwide. The company was founded in 1999 and is headquartered in Tampa, Florida. For more information, visit Follow us on Twitter @VectorPerform and on Facebook at

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