WARRENSBURG — Over the centuries firefighting has evolved, from buckets and hand pumps to self-contained breathing apparatuses and hydraulic ladders.
Firefighting continues to change and, with the addition of new equipment and procedures, the Warrensburg Fire Department is taking steps to further protect firefighters.
A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that firefighters are facing a threat long after the flames have been extinguished.
Interim Fire Chief Doyle Oxley said that it was discovered that two out of every three firefighters, retired and active duty, get cancer due to exposure form burning of modern building material that produces hazardous material and carcinogens.
“You walk into any modern-day house, what isn’t plastic?” Oxley said. “I mean everything, the chairs, the table, the floor, the ceiling, the walls. There’s no wood anymore.”
He said there is danger from the way things are made and how they burn.
“They actually got some science behind it and what they’re finding is that all this stuff produces hydrogen cyanide,” Oxley said. “Houses burn a lot faster now and hotter because of all the man-made materials in them. With that, our gear has to get better and with that comes more cost and we have to get smarter about the way we do things.”
The danger of these carcinogens, beyond first exposure, is that the particles stay in the gear worn by firefighters.
“In the fire world, it was recommended we wash our gear every six months,” Oxley said. “So all those products of combustion are dumped out on the guys exterior gear and inside their gear.”
The gear is designed to protect the human body from extreme temperatures through various layers of materials that do not breathe which means firefighters still sweat.
The technology for these suits has evolved to be much more effective over the last few decades, but fighting fires means sweating.
“All of our plastics and laminates produce hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide,” Oxley said. “Doesn’t matter what temperature it is, you’re always sweating in (turnout gear).”
The sweat and heat inside the gear opens pores, making it easier for contaminants to enter the bloodstream.
The solution has been to reduce the amount of time firefighters are in the gear that gets exposed to carcinogens.
Previously, personnel would wear or carry their turnout gear on the ride back from a fire, hang it up to dry and put it right back on for the next call.
“It’s very much of a mindset change, especially for us older firefighters” Oxley said. “I remember as a young firefighter you just fight a house fire, fight a car fire, you just take your gear off, wash your face, wash your hands and go to bed.”
New procedure calls for several stages of decontamination.
After a fire is extinguished, outer gear is washed down or brushed off, depending on the weather conditions, then removed while at the scene.
“They have to strip down to whatever they wore underneath their bunker gear,”Oxley said, recounting a fire where a few Warrensburg firefighters wore little more than socks and pajamas under their gear. “It’s a new paradigm for us to shift to, this whole decon thing.”
Gear is placed in plastic bags to limit contact with the separate compartment of the firetruck designated for transporting gear back to the station.
“If you are the first pumper on scene, the attack crew, we want to get you off the scene and into the showers in an hour. ....It’s basic hazmat now,” Oxley said.
After returning to the station, firefighters go through further decontamination, showering and changing clothes. The gear, soaked in smoke and sweat, needs to be cleaned to remove carcinogens and other hazardous material. The effective removal of cancer-causing materials requires specialized machinery.
Though it resembles a normal household washer from the outside, the extractor houses a specialized interior drum designed to spin at 15 g’s.
“This is huge for us,” Oxley said.
The extractor, at a cost of $4,000, was ordered in September of 2018 and delivered in January. Station two has a commercial extractor that has been in use since 1992.
Due to the construction of turnout gear, once it is wet it must be air dried to prevent it from being damaged.
Currently, station one and station two have a “laundry mat setup” and each firefighter has an extra set of gear.
“We always have one set that’s clean,”Oxley said.
The extractor was found by Jim Kushner, retired fire chief, at a conference prior to his retirement.
“It’s the same size as a regular residential top-loading machine, but it spins at 15g’s,” Oxley said.
Firefighting gear can take heat but can be damaged by sunlight and from a normal washing machine.
The new drying rack for station one came from a company that specializes in designing drying racks for the mining industry.
“Not all at once, but there is about seven hours of cleanup after a fire,”Oxley said. “We have our gear, our personal gear, our guys, our hose, nozzles, trucks, all of our (self-contained breathing apparatuses) have to be deconed and cleaned up and ready to go again.”
Other procedures used to reduce exposure to carcinogens are to wipe down the interior and exterior of vehicles, ensure doors are closed between the apparatus floor and living areas at the station, use of a vehicle exhaust system in bay areas and routine cleaning of areas exposed to carcinogens.
“A byproduct of burning diesel is benzene,” Oxley said. “Benzene is huge when it comes to brain cancer.”
Both station one and station two have exhaust capturing systems that help to remove fumes, produced by diesel engines, from the bays that house the fire trucks.
“We knew we had a problem,” Oxley said.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health conducted a study of almost 30,000 firefighters from Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco.
The study, completed in 2015, found that firefighters had a greater number of cancer diagnoses and cancer-related deaths based on U.S. cancer rates.
About twice as many firefighters had malignant mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos. More instances of bladder and prostate cancers were found in firefighters younger than 65 than was expected by researchers.
“Compared with the US population, (the researchers) found small to moderate increases in risk for several cancer sites and for all cancers combined, stemming mostly from excess malignancies of the respiratory, digestive and urinary systems in otherwise healthy individuals. Our findings are consistent with previous studies and strengthen evidence of a relation between firefighters’ occupational exposure and cancer,” the study concludes.
Kushner confirmed that there have been WFD firefighters that have battled cancer. He declined to name individuals to maintain privacy to those individuals and their families.
Along with procedures, the kind of gear used by the WFD is changing too.
With the end of the 10-year cycle for firefighting helmets, some members of the WFD have elected to switch from the iconic firefighters hat to a firefighting helmet that resembles a motorcycle helmet with a built-in eye shield.
“I wanted them to know that we have to keep up with technology,” Oxley said.
“This one here,”Oxley said, gesturing to the new helmet, “they leave on during (vehicle) rescues cause you can get this noggen through the door now. That one there (the traditional helmet), it’s usually always off sitting on a car hood somewhere.”
He said in the grand scheme of occupational hazards, air packs are not that old, going on to explain that some of the more experienced firefighters began their careers without air packs.
“You’ve got to remember, everything was (built from) wood back then too,” Oxley said. “It was different, didn’t have near the poisons floating around your head and you didn’t have the extreme temperatures we have now with all the man-made materials.”
With all the changes and precautions recently adopted by the WFD, the basics of firefighting have not changed.
“There is still a lot of the old-school firefighting knowledge you gotta use with all of our high-tech equipment,” Oxley said.