I have been to many funerals of firefighters and retired firefighters. Everybody knows firefighting is a hazardous career, with every shift bringing dangerous incidents such as fires, road traffic collisions, rescuing people from floods or assisting other emergency service workers to carry out their vital work. But there are other dangers that are just as hazardous – some more so.
This Saturday, 28 April, is Workers’ Memorial Day, which each year commemorates all those killed through work and campaigns to ensure such tragedies are not repeated. My union, the Fire Brigades Union, is at the forefront of battling some very worrying issues for firefighters.
Academic research has uncovered some alarming information about the effects of heat from fires on firefighters. Heat makes the blood thicker and more difficult for the heart to push around the body, which means that firefighters are more susceptible to heart attacks and other health issues. The FBU has campaigned for some time to raise awareness of the physiological stress of heat on firefighters and this is an important piece of the jigsaw in explaining why so many firefighters have – and die from – heart attacks.
But that is not the only hazard. The incidence of cancer in firefighters is far higher than in the wider community, with unusual cancers being noticeably more common. Evidence is emerging that suggests the source of these cancers is contaminants from fires being absorbed into the body. These contaminants also settle into our fire tunics and gloves, flash hoods and leggings. We put these fire kits into the fire engines and ride with them to the station or the next incident. We absorb the contaminants while at rest and at work.
The FBU is working with academics to get a true measure of the problem, and to counter some previous reports that maintained there was no greater incidence of cancer in the fire and rescue service. There is, and it is a significant issue. Sadly, many of the firefighters who die of cancer do so after retirement, so it is hard to gather data. It does help that, in Scotland, a person’s last job before they retire is recorded. In many other parts of the world, including Canada, there are laws that presume some specific diseases or conditions are work-related. The FBU is pressing for similar presumptive legislation in the UK.
The risks are not just to our physical health. Mental health issues in the fire service are well known and are rising alarmingly. It is becoming more common for firefighters to take their own life. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a big part of the problem. It can be treated successfully, given the right approach and the right resources. But massive and cruel cuts in the fire and rescue service have resulted in the loss of 11,000 firefighters’ jobs, from 60,000 in 2010, and a fall in the number of trained and skilled mental health workers. In the London fire brigade, the number of trained counsellors was cut from 14 to two. Following the Grenfell fire, four more counsellors have been employed on a permanent basis, but cuts are a national disgrace and should be rectified by immediate reinvestment in the country’s fire and rescue services.
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