Contaminants Project Launched to Improve Firefighter Safety

On September 1st 2023, Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service (MAWWFRS) commenced a project to improve firefighter safety, as recent studies have shown that firefighters are exposed to a higher degree of contaminants in fires, which are linked to increased rates of cancer and mental health issues. 

Research has shown that instances of cancer among firefighters aged 35-39 years old is 323% higher than in the corresponding category within the general population.

In their working lives, firefighters may be exposed to contaminants, which not only include chemicals at incidents involving hazardous materials, but also products of combustion at fires.  Many of the hazards that firefighters face, especially at incidents, are mitigated by wearing Breathing Apparatus and Personal Protective Equipment, but there are other measures that are currently being developed to prevent and reduce any exposure in their daily work.

A MAWWFRS firefighter wearing a breathing apparatus set.

Over the next six months, the Contaminants Project will look at issues such as firefighter protective equipment, developing safer systems of work to minimise the exposure to contamination, improved health monitoring of fire and rescue service personnel and more.  MAWWFRS firefighters will be given training to further understand the risk of contaminants and any new processes that will need to be followed.

Leading the project is Group Manager Simon Pearson, commenting on the launch of the project, GM Pearson said:

“The health and well-being of our firefighters is of the utmost importance to the Service and I am proud to be playing a key role in that commitment.

I look forward to meeting with firefighters across the Service area in the coming months to implement safer working practices for our crew members.”

Hygiene packs have been introduced for firefighters to decontaminate themselves on incidents, so that smoke and soot can be removed from protective clothing and equipment.  The Service has also invested in new fire engines that will have modified crew cabs with additional storage to ensure that no dirty equipment is stored with members of the crew following an incident.

Speaking on the Contaminants Project, Deputy Chief Fire Officer Iwan Cray said:

“MAWWFRS firefighters are dedicated to keeping their communities safe, therefore it’s only right that we put their safety and well-being at the forefront of our working practices.

Research outcomes are sobering and we will work closely with our crew members to raise awareness on the importance of personal decontamination, ensuring all kit is kept clean and that a positive health and safety culture is fostered by every Fire Station.

The Contaminants Project represents a long-term commitment and investment by MAWWFRS in creating safer working conditions and I look forward to seeing how it develops.”

MAWWFRS crew members responding to a wildfire in Talgarth, May 2023.

Mid and West Wales Fire Brigades Union (FBU) Chair, Deiniol Lloyd, said:

“The FBU welcomes this new project, which will see our Service start to provide vital training and resources needed to protect firefighters from harmful contaminants.

Firefighters have long been aware of the health impacts of exposure to toxins in fire. For the past years, the FBU has been leading the way with the DECON campaign, calling for protection from occupational diseases.

This initiative will build on the research commissioned by the FBU, carried out by Professor Anna Stec and her team at the University of Central Lancashire. Firefighters deserve protection from cancer, and there is much more to be done. We call on all fire services in Wales, and across the UK, to follow this leading example and protect firefighters' health at work."

The importance of safe working practices and the risks involved in the role of a firefighter are part of the initial and ongoing training every recruit receives.  MAWWFRS has recently invested in a purpose-built breathing apparatus training facility where firefighters can train in real fires, but all smoke is captured and is prevented from polluting the atmosphere.  Other investment includes a machine that can wash breathing apparatus sets, which reduces the need for firefighters and maintenance staff having to do this manually following incidents.

For more information on MAWWFRS’s Contaminants Project, please contact GM Simon Pearson on s.pearson@mawwfire.gov.uk.