To catch a killer: The defining issue of a generation

It is easy for our focus to wonder, directed as it is by global pandemics, war in Europe, cost of living crisis, crippling mental health complaints and multiple competing agendas vying for our attention, not just on a daily, but on a minute-by-minute basis.

The Fire and Rescue Service has quite rightly been preoccupied by all this and more, not least the Grenfell Tower Inquiry findings, the government response and the long-awaited fire reform white paper. The latter was finally launched and landed with not so much a thud as a shrug, hardly surprising given competing catastrophes.

The premise was hardly a cause for optimism, the report coming relatively soon after the reform agenda was launched by then Home Secretary Theresa May and so many reviews have highlighted the main problems, including Adrian Thomas’ infamously overlooked seminal critique on equality and diversity failings and the HMI’s amplification through the annual State of Fire proclamation/condemnation.

Governance restructure models were touted widely in the Knight Report and although police and crime commissioners have not had the wholesale approval the government was possibly anticipating, a single ‘preferably democratically elected’ person is still set to take overall responsibility, whether through the Prime Minister’s personal favourite mayoral model or otherwise. ‘By hook or by crook’ should be the chapter heading.

Speaking of which, by hook or by crook is perhaps apt when discussing where we need to get to when it comes to raising awareness of contaminants. A comment from a friend and former fire chief – sadly deceased, cancer – that he would throw his kit in the back of the car after an incident, go and pick the kids up and forget all about it – standard practice for years, he’d tell me, “because we didn’t know any better” – came back to haunt recently. At the Fire Brigades Union annual conference (see pg 14) an officer’s committee representative used virtually the same words in reference to some of today’s fire officers. It came following a series of reps referenced fallen colleagues, family members and their own personal cancer survival stories.

Having spent the best part of a quarter of a century attending FBU conferences, it was by far the most emotionally charged, humbling and thought-provoking session I have witnessed. Indeed that is anywhere, in any conference, at any meeting in the fire sector.

That was due, in no small part, to remembering Fire Service friends who had passed away far too soon from cancer. What were they to know? More importantly, what do we know now?

Well, we know enough to figure out there’s something seriously wrong and that fire contaminants can cause higher rates amongst firefighters than the general population – four times higher according to the research by the University of Central Lancashire commissioned by the union.

The journey to raise awareness, to undertake more research in this area, to ensure safer working practices are developed, to work with industry to provide best practice fire kit monitoring and management, has all only just begun (see PPE Focus, Fire International section for some jaw-dropping developments). There are far too many friends and colleagues dying too soon to just do nothing.

Let’s drop the collective apathy, focus on life safety first and tackle this killer together.

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