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DECON: one year on

Fire Brigades Union Stand: 5/H222

Our vital DECON campaign to better protect firefighters against toxic contaminants and prevent cancer has brought a wave of change across the fire and rescue service. FBU national officer Riccardo la Torre looks at what we’ve achieved one year on from the campaign launch.

Before the Fire Brigades Union started exploring the links between firefighting, contaminants and cancer, there was very little work being done across the UK fire and rescue service on how to prevent firefighters’ from developing cancer and other diseases because of their work.

Since we launched DECON in September 2021, we have seen a culture change across the UK fire and rescue service as firefighters embrace DECON behaviours.. Fire and rescue services are adopting new and more innovative ways to better protect their employees’ health.

This is the beginning of the DECON generation.

Ingraining DECON in the UK fire and rescue service

We launched the DECON training because we want every firefighter to understand the risk to their health even after the fire is out.

Thousands of firefighters have watched the training videos and are equipped with the knowledge on the different steps to follow to protect themselves, their co-workers and their families.

When the University of Central Lancashire first carried out their research into the links between cancer and firefighting, they found that 75% of fire and rescue services displayed no information about contaminants. Now, posters warning of the dangers and reminding firefighters about the DECON behaviours to follow are on nearly every fire station across the UK.

While many firefighters have taken the training on their own initiative, it is hugely important that fire and rescue services take DECON seriously and make every effort to ensure that their employees know what to do and can take the steps to minimise their exposure to toxic fire effluents.

Thanks to the tireless work and dedication of our health and safety reps, several fire and rescue services have formally supported DECON, taking on board the recommendations and building the training into their training programme.

In services like Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service, the training is being provided for all new recruits as part of their initial training and repeated for all their employees every two years. A DECON working group has been set up to introduce the key elements of DECON such as ‘shower within the hour’, helping to secure towels and decontaminating shower gel in every washroom across stations.

Revolutionising decontamination practices

Some fire services are going above and beyond to decrease firefighters’ exposure to toxic contaminants and prevent cross-contamination on stations.

In Tyne and Wear, FBU officials have been working with the fire service on a new ‘clean-cab’ policy and ground-breaking plans to build a fire station around the principles of DECON.

The ‘clean-cab’ policy has seen the service invest in lockers for fire engines to dispose of contaminated kit and smoke curtains to help prevent crews inhaling toxins, while the new fire station is purposefully designed for firefighters to move through the DECON steps without spreading contaminants throughout the building.

These new policies will massively help to prevent firefighters carrying toxic fire effluents around their workplace and back to their home. We are calling on other managers to take note and look at how they can apply these principles in their services.

International recognition

DECON is having an impact not just in the UK, but also internationally.

On 1 July, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a World Health Organisation body, classified firefighters’ occupational exposure to toxic contaminants as carcinogenic. The lead researcher on the DECON project, Professor Anna Stec, is a member of IARC and we can be proud that our research helped to influence the decision.

This is a huge step in the right direction. We have consistently warned the National Fire Chiefs Council, fire service employers, and government ministers that toxic contaminants are a life-threatening occupational hazard for firefighters. It is a wake-up call that they must push ahead with urgent improvements to protect firefighters.

We can also be proud that our firefighter brothers and sisters across Europe are benefitting from DECON. I was proud to give a presentation on our research at a meeting of the European Public Service Union (EPSU) Firefighters’ Network at European Parliament in Brussels in June, while our interim best practice report with UCLan has now been translated into eight European languages.

We have more work to do to save firefighters from early, needless deaths, but everything we have achieved over the last year shows that DECON is here to stay.