The firefighter cancer risk is real

The science has shown that firefighters face an increased risk of occupational illnesses, particularly cancer. Firefighters have a 9% greater risk of contracting cancer and a 14% greater chance of dying from cancer.

Emerging research supports that skin decontamination after exposure to smoke and other products of combustion is an important step in reducing the risk of occupational cancers in the fire service. Knowing this, we would assume that everyone in the fire service would be eager to use decontamination wipes such as Responder Wipes. But many struggle to make the behavioral changes necessary in order to implement a post-fire skin decontamination protocol to lower exposure to carcinogens.

In the fire service, nothing is hated more than change

We all know that change in the fire service comes slow – it’s like turning a cruise ship in a pool. The culture of the fire department is critical in determining whether change will occur and how well it occurs. While no one is pro-cancer, the culture of your fire department may suggest you are willing to accept the risks you face on the fire ground and after the call by not removing the products of combustion from skin. If so, it will be difficult to make departmental changes.

Implementing a decontamination protocol

Recognizing this, what can departments do to implement a decontamination protocol and increase the odds of success? By utilizing the “Influencer Model” you may achieve a higher compliance rate. The “Influencer Model” recognizes that you need to have the motivation and ability to make change and this can come from three aspects – personal, societal, or structural. Based on this, Dr. Brian Brauer, Associate Director with the Illinois Fire Service Institute has developed multiple suggestions on ways to ensure a decontamination wipe protocol is successful.

Recommended strategies

  1. Develop a post-fire decontamination SOP/SOG. See this instructional sheet from IFSI.
  2. Provide instruction on how to use the wipe effectively and which areas of the body have the highest priority for decontamination. Download this graphical flyer with recommended procedures to decontaminate with our wipes.
  3. Instructors need to model the behavior for students/cadets.
  4. Use peer leaders to influence others.
  5. Designate a wipe distributor on the fire scene. This could be a rehab unit or company officer.
  6. Provide signage to remind firefighters to decontaminate and identify the location of the wipes. “Did You Decon?”
  7. Develop an accountability and/or rewards system.
  8. Have abundant locations for wipe distribution and make sure they are placed where the needed and used the most. Make the wipes easy to find.
  9. Maintain an adequate supply. You don’t want to run out!


By implementing a post-fire skin decontamination program, you are recognizing the importance of your department’s most critical asset – your personnel. You are providing your firefighters with an opportunity to live a healthy life, long into retirement! When you step back and look at the motivations for behavior, you may be more successful in introducing and implementing a decontamination program in your department.​​​

For more information, visit the Research Library at Illinois Fire Service Institute or email Dr. Brian Brauer.