FBU Conference 2022: Union to expand DECON
The Fire Brigades Union has agreed at its annual conference to expand its work on the effects of fire contaminants – toxic substances produced by fires - on firefighters. In ongoing research with the University of Central Lancashire, which the union commissioned, it is thought that fire contaminants can cause cancer rates amongst firefighters to be up to four times higher than the general population.
As well as commissioning the research, into the links between the occupation of firefighting and cancer and disease, the union had previously produced training in this area. The new developments at conference mean it will now fight to see best practice on contamination expanded throughout the fire service, including via national guidance, contaminants monitoring, cancer screening, fire station design principles and more.
The union also voted to expand the research to take into account research studies and reports suggesting that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are hazardous to health.
Commenting during the debate, Riccardo la Torre, Fire Brigades Union national officer, said [abridged]:
“It’s overwhelming to see how much conference, our members, our health and safety reps and our reps in branches have taken on this campaign. I watched a friend and a brother die from this disease, it took Steve’s tongue before it took his life. Another very good friend of mine got the exact same cancer, base of the tongue and throat – he’d never smoked in his life. Every delegate in this room will have their own story.
“No one was doing [this work] – not the government, not the NFCC, not the employers - so, we know what we do best in the FBU. We look after each other. We’re doing it ourselves.
“We can be the DECON generation. Remember the dead, and fight for the living – that’s exactly what this fight is.”
Several firefighters shared emotional testimony of how cancer has affected them and fellow firefighters. Steve Burns, from Hampshire, recounted how the past decade has been “tough”, with 19 rounds of chemotherapy, and said “we in the UK are well behind and need to catch up”. Another told of how his own father had died from cancer nine days before his retirement, and added “the consultant oncologist said that his work as an operational firefighter was a highly likely contributing factor to the illness and subsequent death. The pain and heartbreak felt by his colleagues, family and friends was at times unbearable”.
La Torre added in comment:
“The union’s work so far has raised awareness of the risks of fire contaminants, and taken action to prevent those risks. Now we want to take the next step and make sure that decontamination is really embedded across the fire and rescue service at all levels. With new policy on national guidance, monitoring, screening and much more we are confident we are taking significant steps here that will help create healthier firefighters in the future.”
The conference motion on guidance notes the absence of decontamination within the fire and rescue service’s National Operational Guidance and commits the union to fighting to change this. The motion on station design notes that decontamination efforts “can be undermined by outdated fire station building designs” and, similarly, commits the union to making efforts to ensure that decontamination principles are embedded in all future fire station designs. Another motion committed the union to working towards enhanced cancer screening and all fire and rescue services monitoring fire contaminant exposures.
PFAS are highly persistent chemicals that are thought to have a wide range of possible health effects. They have been the subject of attention including the 2019 Mark Ruffalo film Dark Waters. These compounds are thought to be present in some firefighting foam and uniforms.
The research which suggests significantly higher cancer rates in firefighters – centred around a survey of 11,000 firefighters which found cancer rates four times as high amongst respondents compared to what would be expected from the general population – was commissioned by the union and produced independently by the University of Central Lancashire.
The conference, taking place from 10-13 May, is the union’s first in-person conference since the beginning of the pandemic.
You can read more about the FBU’s campaign on this here, and more about the University of Central Lancashire research which underpins it here.
Below are the motions that have been passed by Fire Brigades Union conference on this.
25. HAZARDS TO FIREFIGHTERS HEALTH FROM EXPOSURE TO PERFLUOROALKYL AND POLYFLUOROALKYL SUBSTANCES (PFAS) AND PERFLUOROOCTANOIC ACID (PFOA) CHEMICALS
Conference commends the work and action carried out under the DECON campaign.
Conference instructs the Executive Council to expand this campaign to include action based on the research studies and reports that have been carried out internationally on PFAS and PFOAs that have been proven to be hazardous to health.
Note – PFOA are a chemical that sits in the PFAS family of compounds.
Conference commends the progressive work undertaken by Professor Anna Stec, the University of Central Lancashire and the Fire Brigades Union to identify and mitigate firefighter exposure to cancer causing carcinogens.
Conference also acknowledges the absence of decontamination within National Operational Guidance (NOG).
This lack of inclusion falls short of protecting firefighters from exposure by not recognising it formally within national guidance documents.
NOG must include DECON principles to effect positive and necessary cultural change on the fireground enabling all firefighters to decontaminate and remove carcinogens effectively throughout the process of an incident.
Conference instructs the Executive Council to ensure that the principles of DECON, where relevant, are integrated into NOG at a national level.
32. FIREFIGHTERS EFFLUENT EXPOSURES
Conference notes the outstanding work completed by the University of Central Lancashire and Professor Anna Stec in the area of helping protect our Members against the long-term health effects of repeated exposures to toxic fire effluents.
In line with the recommendations made in the interim best practice report for ‘Minimising firefighters’ exposure to toxic fire effluents’, Conference instructs the Executive Council (EC) to continue to work towards bringing all of the recommendations made in this report into practice across the UK.
Conference instructs the EC to progress the following recommendations as soon as possible;
• to work towards cancer and other illnesses being recognised as occupational hazards within Fire and Rescue Services (FRSs)
• to work towards all FRSs being required to monitor toxic fire effluent exposures across all of their staff
• to work towards a national policy of enhanced cancer screening for all operational personnel within FRSs once they have served a set number of years or, where suitable monitoring exists, where they have been recorded as having a set number of toxic fire effluent exposures.
34. DECON – FIRE STATION BUILDING DESIGN PRINCIPLES
Conference commends the progressive work undertaken by Professor Anna Stec, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and the Fire Brigades Union to identify and mitigate firefighter exposure to cancer-causing carcinogens.
Conference also acknowledges that many of the 11 steps promoted by the UCLan interim best practice document can be undermined by outdated fire station building designs that fall short of protecting firefighters from exposure.
Conference also recognises that many stations fall short of providing facilities that enable firefighters to decontaminate and remove carcinogens effectively post incident.
Conference instructs the Executive Council to ensure that every Fire and Rescue Service embeds the principle of DECON in all future fire station designs. That retrospective work is undertaken where current building stock is unlikely to be replaced and to ensure, where identified, that any shortfalls that undermine DECON and the mitigation of exposure are addressed.
HAMPSHIRE & ISLE OF WIGHT