Indianapolis Fire Department Aims to Limit Cancer Risks with Chemical Detox Sauna

Firefighters inside the new IFD chemical detox sauna

By Rita Reith

The Indianapolis Fire Department (IFD) continues to take aim at Cancer in the Fire Service with the recent purchase of a Chemical Detox Sauna, built to help firefighters eliminate deadly toxins from their body after fighting fires.  Firefighters from IFD first discovered the Chemical Detox Sauna at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC International) in 2015, when Canadian Rodney Palmer, owner of SaunaRay, attended as one of the 875 vendors who exhibit at the conference every year. IFD Firefighters were conducting a full court press with their efforts to eradicate cancer in the fire service and looking for ways to help keep themselves safe.  SaunaRay built a product that fully understands a target demographic desperate to stop yet another firefighter dying from Cancer.  With the advantage of having the FDIC Conference in Indianapolis, IFD gratefully acknowledges that over the last 22 years they have benefitted from the opportunity to learn the latest techniques in firefighter safety, health and training, while utilizing the newest in fire ground tools and apparatus. Not to mention the over 25 Hands on Training classes, 80 workshops and 200 classroom sessions afforded firefighters in Indianapolis and surrounding areas as a thank you from FDIC for the teamwork and hundreds of hours it takes to make the conference happen.  Firefighters from over 53 countries are represented amongst the over 30,000 firefighters who attend every year.

Palmer was approached by several IFD Firefighters at the 2015 conference, all asking how the product worked and why it was so beneficial.  This deadly disease now reaching epidemic proportions within the fire service, had stricken one too many IFD firefighters and as a department IFD was prepared to strike back.  Please see the attachment with information about the SaunaRay Chemical Detox Sauna.  In late 2016 Chief Ernest Malone reached out to the 43 House Captains on IFD asking for a wish list of sorts.  Within the IFD budget was a small amount of money that he was willing to allocate to one or more “special projects” requests that the house captains thought might benefit the firefighters at their station.  One reply came from Station 44 Captain Tim McDonnell, a 30 plus year firefighter and cancer survivor.  His wish list request? A SaunaRay Chemical Detox Sauna. He was one of the members who inquired about the sauna at the conference in 2015 and knew from the subsequent research that this could be the IFD’s next step.  Chief Ernest Malone couldn’t agree more.  A small price to pay for the enormous opportunity to give the firefighters the necessary tools to stay safe and ownership in the knowledge that ours is a dangerous profession but it doesn’t have to kill us.

In August of 2015, Chief Ernest Malone announced the official and full implementation of the 11 recommendations as published by the non-profit Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN National) Cancer White Paper “Taking Action Against Cancer in the Fire Service." IFD was the first department in the US to utilize and mandate all 11 recommendations.   IFD personnel received training and equipment recommended by the study as part of its ongoing effort to reduce the risk of firefighters exposure to deadly carcinogens. IFD firefighters were provided with the latest protective clothing, equipment and participation in initiatives such as the "Tobacco Free: IFD" (since 2001),” Annual Physical and Wellness Evaluations through Public Safety Medical, full participation in the IAFF Ten Cities Wellness Fitness Initiative (since 1997) and the Harvard Heart Study (2014).  Additionally, in 2014,  the IFD conducted a required training class for all officers that re-iterated the cancer dangers that firefighters face on a daily basis and proactive steps each firefighter can take to prevent it. The IFD continues to be a national leader within the fire service with regard to health and safety initiatives and its efforts are supported by Indianapolis Professional Firefighters (IAFF Local 416) and the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF).   Chief Malone states “The implementation of the 11 steps was one more way to ensure that at the end of every day – and many years of service - our firefighters will go home safely to their families.”

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In addition to the steps taken at the local level, the IAFF is working to get legislation passed at the national level to create a Firefighter Cancer Registry which will be managed by the CDC and will improve data collection and research on cancer in firefighters - proposed bill (HR 4625).  Congressman Andre Carson was recently recognized as one of the supporters of the bill. Indiana is also fortunate to have a presumptive law which identifies the increase in occurrences of cancer in the fire service. This law better protects firefighters who may be diagnosed with one of the more prevalent types of Cancer firefighters face.

Delivery of the Chemical Detox Sauna was made in March of 2017 to IFD Station 44 located at 30th and Shadeland.  Some minor adjustments at the station were made to accommodate the placement of the sauna and provide a 220v outlet in the upstairs space identified as the optimal location for use.   While gross decon of turnout gear and equipment occurs on scene, which includes the use of baby wipes to clean exposed skin, the sauna is used by firefighters upon their return to the station.  The firefighters enter the two person sauna and pedal a stationary bike for approximately 10 minutes. The heat and movement allows them to work up a sweat which then helps purge the deadly toxins from their bodies.  This is followed by a normal shower.  Across 3 shifts, Station 44 has 30 firefighters permanently assigned and will be using this as an opportunity to develop best practice policy and procedure for IFD going forward.  The feedback they collect amongst the firefighters at the station will allow Chief Malone and the IFD Cancer Committee to evaluate the product and explore the option of moving forward with it department wide. The immediate result as experienced by the crews has been the noticeable lack of “fire smell” that typically emanates from the body up to a week after fighting a fire. It is the focused release of these absorbed toxins that firefighters hope will lessen the chance of developing cancer. The cost of the two person sauna that IFD purchased for Station 44 runs about $6,000 which includes the two bikes.  Palmer worked with IFD and provided a show discount for purchase. If the feedback and evaluations prove positive, IFD firefighters will be looking for ways to raise funds that allow the purchase of a Chemical Detox Sauna for each of the 43 IFD Fire Stations.

Occupational cancer continues to outpace other causes of death in the fire service and is second only to heart disease. 60% of firefighters are diagnosed with cancer and the numbers continue to rise. It is the most talked about health issue amongst firefighters today.  FDIC is headed to Indy for the 23 year from April 24 through April 29th. You can bet your IFD firefighters will be out in force talking, learning, educating, supporting, and believing that we will rise to the challenge of kicking cancer to the curb.

RITA L. REITH is a battalion chief with the Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department and serves as the agency's public information officer.

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