Fighting Fires & Cancer

Cancer is now the number one killer of active firefighters, who have a greater chance of getting the disease than the general population. Cancer rates among firefighters are increasing as more synthetic materials are used to build furniture, appliances, toys, and other products that commonly burn in a house fire. A firefighter’s chance of getting a cancer diagnosis is currently nine percent higher than the general population and their chance of dying from cancer is 14 percent greater (Shaffer, 2018).

The fire service is adopting several measures to reduce firefighters’ exposure to harmful chemicals, including regularly washing the turnout gear they wear to battle blazes. However, the problem with washing gear is that it often takes too long to dry.

Primary Cause for Cancer

Firefighters are exposed to many carcinogens in large part due to the chemical residue in the black soot left on their turnout gear and the repeated contact they have with the gear in training and emergency calls.

Numerous substances are known to cause higher cancer rates and firefighters encounter them daily. One of the chemical compounds that is causing a lot of concern is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). The compound is found in naturally-occurring substances like coal, crude oil, wood, and other organic materials used to make roofing products, plastics, and household products. When these products burn, they generate toxic byproducts that can be inhaled and absorbed through the skin, even after the fire has been extinguished and everyone has returned to the station house.

There are also several other chemicals and compounds that are important to avoid as much as possible. These include benzene, hydrogen sulfide and aldehydes (Brandt-Rauf, Fallon, Tarantini, Idema, & Andrews, 1988).

The absorption, ingestion, and inhalation of PAHs have been shown to cause DNA mutations and cell damage that can lead to cancer (American Chemical Society, 2017). The first level of exposure occurs at the fire scene while materials are burning, and the gases are released into the atmosphere. A firefighter in full turnout gear with SCBA protection is generally safe from exposure at the scene, but once the SCBA mask and turnout gear is taken off, that protection evaporates.

The exposure continues, even after the turnout gear is hung up at the fire station to await the next emergency call. Toxic chemicals can be absorbed by the skin when the firefighter takes off and puts on the gear. Also, vapors that continue to emanate from the chemicals on the gear can be inhaled and damage internal organs.

Methods to Control Exposure at Scene

The best way to minimize the risk to firefighters is to remove as much of the harmful residue as possible from the turnout gear following the fire and adopt ways to improve gear handling during and after the call.

To reduce exposure to harmful chemicals, firefighters should always wear full protective personal equipment with an SCBA when working any fire or conducting overhaul to check for extensions and hot spots.

Before taking off the equipment, they should use a fire hose to wash loose residue off the outside of their gear. Once the gear is taken off, they should shower to remove chemical substances from the body and hair.

Washing Gear Also Reduces Cancer Risk

Washing the turnout gear, SCBA units, and other firefighting equipment removes the residue, greatly reducing its contact with skin whenever the gear or equipment is used. Since repeated exposure to the chemical residue over time is a primary cause of contamination, firefighters should wash their gear every time it gets dirty from a call.

If the firefighter cancer rate is to be reduced, regular gear cleansing to remove the carcinogens that cause bladder, lung, oral, respiratory, urinary, and other cancers (and asbestos residue that causes mesothelioma) is imperative.

The problem with washing the gear, which includes a two-layer coat, gloves and pants, is that it often takes too much time to dry. Wet turnout gear is heavier to wear, puts more physical strain on the firefighter, and retains and transfers heat that can cause a firefighter to overheat more rapidly under strenuous conditions.

To address this issue, Pvt. Scott Martin, a firefighter from Toledo Fire Department Station 9, who has a background in carpentry and remodeling, has found a unique way to significantly reduce the gear’s drying time (Dunn, 2018). Martin designed a drying rack specifically made to dry wet turnout gear in roughly 45 minutes and at a fraction of the cost of commercial dryers. (Dunn, 2008)

How the Dryer Works

Martin developed a rack using PVC pipes built into a container that can roll around in the bay of the truck. The turnout coat and pants are placed on the rack so the open PVC pipe ends can slide into the arms of the coat and the pant legs. Air circulates through the gear through holes drilled into the PVC pipes. A fan used to dry the wet floor in the fire station bay may be placed up to an opening in the drying rack to pump up the air circulation. The system dries the gear in as little as 45 minutes. Otherwise, the drying process can take hours, perhaps even days, depending on the weather conditions at the fire station.

How to Get a Dryer for Gear

Martin is currently making new dryers for other fire stations. For more information, or to buy a dryer from him or get the design specifications to build one of your own, contact him at Station 9 in Toledo at (419) 936-3550.

What type of system or process do you use to dry your gear?


  1. Dunn, A. (2018) Firefighter Develops Gear Dryer to Reduce Cancer Risk. Retrieved from
  2. Shaffer, R. (2018). Cancer is Leading Cause of Death in Firefighters. Retrieved from
  3. American Chemical Society (2017). Battling Flames Increases Firefighters’ Exposure to Carcinogens. Retrieved from en/pressroom/presspacs/2017/acs-presspac-october-18-2017/battling-flames-increases-firefighters-exposure-to-carcinogens.html
  4. Brandt-Rauf, P.W., Fallon, Jr., L.F., Tarantini, T., Idema, C., & Andrews, L. (1988). Retrieved from PMC1009663/

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