First and Second Responders

Researchers help firefighters stay healthy.

Fall 2023
Tucson Fire Department firefighters battle a major fire at a Tucson scrapyard amidst dense smoke in 2022.

Tucson Fire Department firefighters battle a major fire at a Tucson scrapyard amidst dense smoke in 2022. Exposure to toxins is a common hazard for firefighters.

Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

Long after a blaze has finally gone cold, firefighters still face dangers to their physical and mental health, including heightened risks of cancer and post-traumatic stress. While these first responders can pay a high price for protecting us all, a vigorous partnership between the University of Arizona and Tucson Fire Department is helping ratchet down those costs.

UArizona is committed to improving the lives of firefighters — by reducing carcinogen exposure and boosting emotional well-being — through its new Center for Firefighter Health Collaborative Research in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. “We’re doing things that can provide models for fire departments across the country,” says public health professor and center team member Jeff Burgess.

Those models include real-time research that uses blood and urine samples to show the need for fire crews to avoid toxin exposure by wearing protective gear at all times. Or peer-to-peer support for firefighters struggling with the mental toll of their work. Or even halting the spread of dangerous pathogens through the firehouse.

The work received a big boost in 2015 when UArizona received a $1.5 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to help improve safety at Tucson Fire Department. A subsequent FEMA grant expanded that effort to fi re departments across the country.

The Tucson Fire project began with a tragic loss. In 2014, fire investigator Tom Quesnel died from leukemia that was said to be caused by his work. His death prompted a re-examination of the department’s safety regimen and a quest to identify why firefighters die from cancer at rates 14% higher than the general public.

UArizona’s research revealed just how toxic burned material can be, even after a fire is out. “There are two sources of toxic exposure: breathing it in and absorbing it through the skin,” Burgess says. “Together, these exposures cause changes at a cellular level that put firefighters at higher risk for cancer.”

Those findings led to policy changes, such as requiring that all personnel, including investigators, wear respirators and other protective gear at the scene. The department also introduced the “clean cab” concept, which involves keeping contaminated fire-fighting equipment out of fire truck cabs as well as using wipes for exposed skin and routinely swapping contaminated hoods for clean ones.

Follow-up testing showed an immediate drop in toxins entering the bodies of firefighters.

Still, learning new habits, such as cleaning gear after a fire, was a challenge for weary fire crews, according to Tucson Fire Captain John Gulotta. “A lot of times our guys had been working all night and just wanted to get to get their gear off ,” he says. And more obstacles remain; although the reforms resulted in significantly lower contaminant levels, crew members are still absorbing some toxins. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get to zero,” Gulotta says. “But what we can do is find whole bunch of little things to change.”

Reducing toxic exposure isn’t the only benefit from this UArizona/Tucson Fire collaboration. For instance, Kelly Reynolds, chair of the college’s department of community, environment and policy, addressed TFD’s problem with firehouse MRSA staph infections by advising that carpeting be replaced with easier-to-sanitize hard surfaces; soon, the problem disappeared.

And Patricia Haynes, another Center for Firefighter Health Collaborative Research team member, has introduced cognitive therapy to help firefighters cope with the mental stress of 24-hour shifts, where sleep patterns are constantly under siege from late-night emergencies. She also created an outreach protocol that has firefighters initiating conversations with colleagues facing professional or personal difficulties.

Haynes likewise helped implement a program where firefighters temporarily go on a lighter schedule, allowing them time to deal with problems. “They are always subject to chronic stress,” she says. “This policy allows them to reset and work on some of these issues so that they can get back out in the field.”

It’s just one more perk from the priceless partnership between the university and Tucson’s first responders. “This collaboration is such a big thing,” Gulotta says. “I don’t know how we’d do it if the UA was not so generous in reaching out to us. They are making a huge difference.”

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