South King Fire and Rescue’s uniforms may look a bit different this month — but for a good reason.
In support of Breast Cancer Awareness month this October, SKFR members can be found in shirts sporting pink IAFF Local 2024 and department decals.
“I personally have a passion for cancer awareness, especially in the fire service,” said SKFR Lt. Shannon Oltman, who headed the awareness project. “It really meant a lot to have support from both sides, not only the Local, but also the administration to bring this to fruition.”
For decades, there has been a lack of understanding surrounding the prevalence of cancer in the fire service, Oltman explained.
It used to not be a big deal because people didn’t realize the link between the work environments of firefighting and the link to cancer, she said.
“There is more and more data coming out proving the links to our exposures,” she said. “We are exposed daily … if it’s diesel fumes, or if it’s going into a fire, if it’s going in after a fire where there’s still off-gassing happening. We’re constantly exposed and it’s that long-term exposure over the course of our career that puts us at high risk.”
Firefighters face a 9% increase in cancer diagnoses, and a 14% increase in cancer-related deaths compared to the general U.S. population, according to recent studies regarding firefighter cancer by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Depending on the type of cancer, those in the fire service are at a much greater risk for developing cancer than the general population, Oltman said. As more studies are done, knowledge of the risk for women in the fire service is still evolving.
“For women, because there’s fewer women in the fire service, it’s a little bit behind on the trends and the documentation,” she said. “There’s a lot more in line with the male counterpart cancers.”
“This [information] was just starting to really come out as I was entering the fire service,” she said.
Oltman has been in the fire service for over six years. When she began her career as a mother of two kids, the health concerns did not deter her from fulfilling her lifelong passion in the career, “but it was something where I wanted to enter the fire service with a proactive approach.”
In 2018, the Alberta government in Canada amended the Workers Compensation Act to provide coverage for women who are diagnosed with ovarian and cervical cancer during their fire service careers, according to the Calgary Herald.
“That’s still a work in progress here in the states,” she said.
More than the symbolic shirts, Oltman said, this awareness project is to show the department’s unity with the community.
“We are a community representation,” Oltman said. “Our department, not only are there multiple members and family members who have been survivors of breast cancer, every family has been touched by it in some way.”