Firefighting is one of the world’s riskiest occupations. Firefighters risk their safety every day by suppressing all sorts of combustible and flammable situations. Some fires are extremely dangerous as they lead to total building collapse as seen at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Other fires are less spectacular but can be equally dangerous to a firefighter’s long-term health. Those are fires that release asbestos fibers into the atmosphere where they’re unknowingly inhaled and ingested.

Firefighter Careers and Job Roles

Many firefighters spend their entire careers on the frontline of danger. That duration can span 30 to 40 years for some seasoned veterans. During that time, many firefighters attend hundreds of fire scenes. Some are quickly extinguished and pose little harm. Others are multi-alarm blazes that take hours or days to put out.

Every jurisdiction in America employs firefighters. Small towns usually have a volunteer service with only a few full-time firefighters. Big cities retain fire platoons working on rotational shifts. And then there are firefighters serving in every military branch, at airports and on waterfronts.

Not every fire department member is a frontline responder. Many individuals act in support roles. They visit fire scenes or otherwise come in contact with fire residue.

Consider these back-up positions assisting forward fire suppression teams:

  • Cleanup and demolition crews
  • Arson investigators
  • Dangerous hazard inspectors
  • Training instructors and examiners
  • Mechanics and maintenance workers
  • Hose and equipment technicians
  • Clerical support in fire stations
  • Administrators and senior staff

Most firefighters start their careers on hoses and ladders. They earn experience facing flames and knocking back burning buildings. Some might spend only a few years before branching out. But along the way, all firefighting personnel cross each other’s paths and what they find in burnt buildings comes with them.

Firefighters and Asbestos Exposure

MJN Brief

Firefighters are exposed to every material used to construct the buildings they extinguish. Many are older structures built in the 1980s and earlier that contained a wide range of asbestos-based construction products. These asbestos materials are damaged by chemical changes during a conflagration and become airborne in smoke and dislodging debris.

Firefighters have no idea what they’ll encounter when they start their shifts. They might be called to a residential fire, a commercial complex or an industrial site. Each location has individual hazards but the most common material presenting long-term health risks to firefighters is asbestos.

This is a partial list of building products known to contain asbestos:

Firefighters weren’t only at risk for asbestos exposure on fire sites. The very fire halls they worked in contained asbestos building products. Earlier firefighters wore protective gear containing asbestos. That included their fire and heat retardant clothing. Even their fire engines used asbestos in brakes, clutches, gaskets and insulation. And then there were asbestos hoses.

Installed asbestos building products are usually stable. But when asbestos materials are disturbed in a fire, they send millions of tiny asbestos fibers into the atmosphere that cloud around firefighters who battle the blaze. Unless utilizing a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) with a high-efficiency particulate air filter (HEPA), every firefighter exposed to asbestos would inhale these microscopic particles.

Asbestos exposure didn’t stop at the fire scene. Firefighters were contaminated with asbestos and would truck it back to the hall on their clothes, vehicles and equipment. Without any knowledge and completely unintentional, every firefighter support worker was also exposed to the same asbestos fibers.

Firefighters and Mesothelioma

Asbestos fibers are extremely dangerous to anyone exposed to airborne particles. Inhaled fibers embed themselves into the lung or abdominal linings, which is known as the mesothelium. Asbestos fibers can’t be expelled once lodged in the mesothelium.  Most people are unaware of being exposed, and there is no reaction for decades. For reasons unknown, these asbestos infections turn cancerous and cause the fatal disease called mesothelioma.

Developing mesothelioma can occur anywhere from 10 to 50 years after asbestos exposure. The risk of having mesothelioma depends on the amount of asbestos exposure a firefighter had as well as the duration or time length. It also depends on the type of asbestos they inhaled. Chrysotile, or white asbestos, is the most common type used in building materials and is less dangerous than deadly amphibole asbestos.

Compensation for Firefighters with Mesothelioma

If you’re one of the high-risk firefighter group diagnosed with mesothelioma from job-related asbestos exposure, you could receive compensation for lost income and medical expenses. You may also be entitled to punitive damages paid by negligent asbestos producers. Families of mesothelioma victims can lay claims on behalf of members or may file lawsuits for wrongful deaths.