Firefighter Mortality is Far Too High

Firefighting is dangerous enough without the growing risk of life-threatening diseases. Colin Brown spells out how the government should radically reduce the scandalous rates of illness and death.

For many of us, there are no more terrifying threats than fires, and no greater heroes than firefighters. We can all recall memories, stories, or histories of the many ways that we and our communities owe so very much to those who keep us safe from the horrors of uncontrolled flames, of entrapment, suffocation and smoke.   

The FBU is campaigning hard to secure the support that firefighters are currently denied.

And in a world of climate change, of drought and wildfire, of corporate corner-cutting and official indifference, we need firefighters more than ever before. The burning tower of Grenfell stands as a terrible testament to the priorities of the powerful. We still grieve for those who lost their lives there and we must regularly renew our solidarity with the hundreds injured and bereaved. We know too of another appalling price that was paid for that greed and contempt, with the news that many firefighters who battled that blaze have now been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  

Grenfell represents a particular horror, but those impacts upon the health of firefighters are neither unique nor unusual. In Scotland, Anne, a firefighter’s widow, tells a typical story of the experience of firefighters and their families. Herself a nurse, she said: 

“My husband George was due to retire from the fire service in June 2017 and we had planned our retirement; intending to travel and enjoy a new freedom. In July 2017 we were to be enjoying an extended holiday on a sunny beach, instead we were sitting in the waiting area of our local cancer hospital after he was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer, 6 weeks before he retired.  

“George sadly died in 2020 from cancer and as many fire fighters will tell you, they all know a colleague with a cancer diagnosis or one who has sadly died of cancer and often at a young age with a young family.” 

Last year, Professor Anna Stec published a groundbreaking study into the health of Scottish firefighters entitled Scottish Firefighters Occupational Cancer and Disease Mortality Rates: 2000-2020. It reveals the extent, depth and scope of a scandal which had never been addressed in the UK by research, law or practice. The study indicates that Scottish firefighters have higher mortality rates from cancer at younger ages than their counterparts in the general population. Rare cancers are often only diagnosed in firefighters when they have already reached a terminal stage, and mortality rates for prostate cancer, leukaemia, and cancer of the oesophagus, are several times greater for firefighters that for the general population. Other diseases, too, are far more likely to kill firefighters than the rest of us, with mortality rates from strokes more than doubled and from heart attacks multiplied by five.  

These findings are supported by a four-part study of firefighters’ health risks across the UK, and by an assessment by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organisation, which concluded that firefighting as an occupation is carcinogenic. Both studies were published in 2022 and align with evidence from many other countries. 

Firefighters in the UK have waited far too long for protections which are standard practice elsewhere. Many, as we know, have died waiting. We in Scotland have the opportunity to change this, to bring justice, care, humanity and respect to the firefighters to whom we owe so very much.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has been instrumental in raising awareness of this issue, with politicians, colleagues and the wider trade union movement. The FBU’s DECON campaign calls for four vital commitments from the Scottish Government.

The FBU’s DECON campaign helps firefighters protect themselves and others from harmful contaminants.

The first, very simply, is for regular annual health screening for firefighters, both during their period of service and afterwards into retirement. We know the importance of preventative health, and the crucial difference made by early diagnosis. Our firefighters should have the best possible chance of avoiding the worst. 

The second commitment is that occupational information be included in health reports and similar records, including on death certificates. Data and accurate information are vital for informing policy and practice. Where patients are or have been firefighters, that fact matters. It needs to be known and recorded.   

The third reform that firefighters need is for a just and fair compensation scheme. Many jurisdictions, including Australia, Canada, Poland and nearly all US states, have presumptive legislation that recognises firefighters’ their enhanced risk and the realities of long-term and repeated exposure. We can learn from best practice across the world to develop a Scottish model, filling that shameful gap in our justice and protection.  

And finally, our fire and rescue service needs a budget to support the practical work that needs to be done on the ground in fire stations across Scotland. We need to ensure, as a matter of urgency, that stations have the resources, facilities, training and systems to minimise contamination and maximise health. It is a substantial task, but an achievable one, and the FBU is ready and willing to work with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and the Scottish Government to make it happen across the country.

Three years ago, in Dundee, a huge fire broke out at an industrial estate, in a unit, the roof of which contained asbestos cement. It is too early to know whether those burning fibres in the air have affected the health of the brave local firefighters who put out the blaze. Wildfires are becoming an annual occurrence and are likely to become more frequent and severe as the climate changes. These present additional challenges to our firefighters because of access, geography, and the part-time nature of many rural fire stations.

We know that firefighters across Scotland, day in and day out, bear the risks of significant and life-threatening disease. For far too long those risks to firefighters in the UK have been higher, much higher, than they need to be. 

Our firefighters put their lives on the line every day for us, for the safety of our homes and the wellbeing of our pets and communities. They are the ones we trust to come into our homes. They are the public servants that command the highest levels of public support.  

All of us on the left must come together and support the FBU in their vital campaign to continue saving our lives and their own.More information is available at

Colin Brown is a trade unionist and firefighter. He is a member of the Fire Brigade Union Scotland Executive Council.