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Prioritising Firefighter Health and Safety

by IvyFPS
Prioritising Firefighter Health and Safety

Learning from Experience: Prioritising Firefighter Health and Safety

Steven ‘Robbie’ Burns, Watch Manager in the Operational Assets team, shares his very personal cancer journey. His message is to put your health and wellbeing first, and most of all to learn from his experience.

I followed my childhood dream to become a firefighter and joined the Service in 2006 aged 34. Five years on in November 2011 I felt that I was at the peak of physical fitness, taking part in marathons and 10-mile ‘Hell Runs’ for fun!

In January of 2012, I first noticed blood in my urine. After a quick ‘Google’ I reassured myself that this was due to the distance running. I ignored this first warning sign. Two months later, I again had blood in his urine and approached his GP. The doctor advised that I had a bladder infection and issued antibiotics.

Eight months on, I experienced another episode. Upon consulting a different doctor, I was referred, on
the same day, to Urology in Portsmouth QA Hospital.

Learning from Experience: Prioritizing Firefighter Health and Safety

“I had an initial procedure to check my kidneys and lymphatic system, which culminated in a Cystoscopy. This is when a biro-type pen-thickness camera device is inserted into the bladder via the urethra. Although it only took around 10 minutes it was a painful experience, without any anaesthesia. It revealed a huge, coral-like growth attached to my bladder wall. I was told it was an aggressive cancer and that there would be a ‘journey’ ahead.

Upon leaving the treatment room, to get changed, I fainted. I hit my face on the sink as I fell and this resulted in a four-centimetre cut on my nose, requiring seven stitches in Accident and Emergency. A grim afternoon!

I went home, to break the news to my family that I was now a cancer patient. This situation was made worse by my two black eyes and stitches. My wife, seventeen-year-old son, seven-year-old daughter, and five-year-old son were understandably distraught.

I had the first of 30 surgeries on 17 February 2012 to remove a significant, malignant neoplasm of the bladder. Six weeks later a follow-up procedure found yet more regrowth. This then required 19 sessions of chemotherapy over the next few years, with regular disease removal.

The trauma to my bladder has left many scars, mental and physical, and issues including urgency incontinence, and impotence. I had a recurrence of the disease in December 2022 which is now ongoing again. It has been a hideous time for me and everyone I hold close. I wanted to tell you this story as my disease was probably preventable, or at the very least, much more manageable.

All firefighters knowingly risk their lives to help others in incidents. Much more is understood now about the additional health risks we encounter at fires. The work the Service is doing on contaminants is fantastic and will help to protect everyone in the future. From a personal perspective, the Service has also been brilliant in helping me through this tough time. However, we must all take personal responsibility to do things differently as well. This includes investment from the top and understanding across all workstreams that make up a modern Fire and Rescue Service. There is no excuse for cutting corners and not showering or wearing the right personal protective equipment, nor having poor shower facilities or washing provisions. Please reflect on my journey and take steps to protect yourself. Don’t think, ‘It won’t happen to me.’ That is exactly what I thought before my diagnosis. I was wrong. So don’t be like me, please learn from my mistakes.

Be aware

The Global Health Organisation has linked firefighting and occupational cancer – read their report Global Health Organization Links Fire Fighting and Occupational Cancer – IAFF.

Things operational colleagues can do to better protect themselves: Take decontamination seriously
Shower within an hour

Upon returning to your station (or workplace) following a contaminants incident, take a shower. This is the most crucial thing that can be done to remove soot and products of combustion. These are often not visible to the naked eye and need to be washed away as soon as possible.

Learning from Experience: Prioritizing Firefighter Health and Safety

Wear nitrile gloves

Wear gloves when touching any equipment that is known to have been in a fire. This includes when checking breathing apparatus and any kit on a fire appliance. Wash your hands regularly, and always before eating or using the toilet.

Wear suitable breathing systems for the risks

This could be your personal issue face mask, or breathing apparatus where appropriate.

Keep up to date with contaminants and safety advice

There is a wealth of information available across the Fire and Rescue services. Tap into the resources available and act on best practice guidance.

Learning from Experience: Prioritizing Firefighter Health and Safety

Advice for all colleagues:

Add SNOMED codes to medical records and keep up to date with safety advice

All colleagues who have contact with fire contaminants through their work can update their medical records with a unique set of codes to inform healthcare professionals about the additional risks faced.

Prevention is better than cure:

Always accept NHS invites for health screenings

Use all the tests available on the NHS. Don’t ignore the letters of invitation for cancer screening. It takes seconds to produce a sample or to arrange a mammogram. These lifesaving tools are readily available. Men aged 50 or over or anyone who has concerns are also advised to have a prostate exam. Request one from your GP as it is not currently part of an automatic screening programme.

Learning from Experience: Prioritizing Firefighter Health and Safety

Steven ‘Robbie’ Burns – Watch Manager – urges others to prioritize health and safety, emphasizing that prevention is better than cure.

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