Firemen health risk alarming

Many Americans, including many people living here, remember hearing reports about the serious health problems suffered later by many first responders to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center in New York.

However, probably only a few area people, by comparison, ever have reflected on the health risks firefighters face routinely in Altoona, the rest of Blair County and places beyond whenever they respond to a fire call — not just a major fire event, but sometimes a small one as well.

Mirror reporter William Kibler’s Feb. 14 article, “City fire department looks to increase town’s safety,” was likely eye-opening for many readers, as it should have been — especially a key, alarming statistic stemming from the Altoona Fire Department.

“Since 1998, 64 percent of the retirees from the Altoona Fire Department have contracted cancer — including cancers of the lung, bone, brain and blood,” the article said.

The troubling statistic was part of the annual report presented to the City Council on Feb. 13 by Fire Chief Tim Hileman. After the meeting, Hileman told Kibler that a high incidence of cancer is common in the fire service.

According to Hileman, one of the apparent big causes of the high cancer rate Is the exposure to carcinogens released by combustion during the time when firefighters are working to extinguish a blaze.

However, that isn’t the only cause: Firefighters come into contact with many other potentially harmful substances and gases as they perform their important duty.

And who ever can know what harmful or deadly particulates might be within smoke that’s enveloping a fire scene.

Firefighters put their short- and longer-term personal health at risk every time they answer a call. Whenever someone uses a word such as “brave,” “courageous” or “dedicated” to describe them, he or she isn’t exaggerating.

As part of his report to the council, Hileman discussed progress made as part of his department’s participation in the national Community Risk Reduction program. He said that among the strategies adopted here is a stepped-up program of commercial building inspections, in keeping with the requirements of the International Fire Code, which the city adopted in 2012.

Important in that beefed-up program has been quadrupling of the size of the city’s inspection team; until last year, the city had only one fire inspector.

With the larger inspection team, 483 inspections were conducted during 2018, up from 188 during the prior year.

According to the Feb. 14 article, another — but not the only other — Community Risk Reduction strategy is maintaining a community education program that in 2018 resulted in 2,200 adults and 4,800 children being exposed to fire drills, extinguisher training, fire prevention lessons, in-service programs, job shadows or station tours.

Meanwhile, shrinking the incidence of cancer among firefighters is a consistent motivation guiding the CRR program.

The 2001 terrorist attacks, not only at the World Trade Center but also at the Pentagon, expanded understanding regarding dangers inherent in fire service life. Now, the Altoona Fire Department’s cancer experience is the basis for concern at even the smallest departments.

There can never be too many studies or too much research into ways to protect firefighters while they’re engaged in their crucial missions.

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