- Associated Press - Monday, May 29, 2017

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) - It used to be a badge of honor for old-time firefighters.

Let’s see how dirty we can get our turnout gear before we have to break down and get it cleaned.

Recent studies have shown how potentially dangerous that was, the St. Cloud Times (https://on.sctimes.com/2qItCX9 ) reported. And those studies are prompting more departments to invest in extra sets of turnout gear and “extractors” that wash the gear firefighters wear to remove harmful carcinogens, soot and other chemicals that firefighters come into contact with when fighting fires.

Those preventative measures come at a cost and can be particularly cumbersome on smaller fire departments. The state fire marshal’s office has been offering matching grant money to help defray the costs of the extractors, and area departments are continuing to look for funding for other equipment such as better masks and hoods.

“The awareness has really gone up from where it used to be when we first got on the department,” said Sartell Fire Chief Jim Sattler. “And a lot of it has to do with the materials that are in houses and in cars that’s really bad stuff for firefighters.”

A study released in 2016 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health showed that firefighters in three major U.S. metropolitan departments showed higher rates of certain types of cancer than the general U.S. population.

Firefighters had a greater number of cancer diagnoses and cancer-related deaths, mostly related to digestive, oral, respiratory and urinary cancers.

There were about twice as many firefighters with malignant mesothelioma, a rare type of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.

Firefighters in the study who were younger than 65 had more bladder and prostate cancers than expected. The chance of lung cancer diagnosis or death increased with amount of time spent at fires. The chance of leukemia death increased with the number of fire runs.

“This study provides further evidence that firefighters are at increased risk of certain types of cancer as a result of occupational exposure,” the study concluded. “Raised awareness and exposure prevention efforts are cost-effective means to reduce occupational cancer risk.”

Sartell was one of the cities that used state grant money to buy an extractor. Foley and Sauk Rapids are other departments that have the extractors. All three departments are trying to buy second sets of turnout gear so they have a usable set when dirty gear is being cleaned.

“We are trying to suit our guys with two sets of gear. It takes quite a bit for that gear to dry,” said Mark Pappenfus, Foley fire chief. “We’re trying as we can to replace gear so everybody has a good set and then a backup set.”

The extractor can wash two sets of gear at a time but can’t do inner and outer shells at the same time. So you’re really doing the equivalent of one set at a time.

“After you get a call, it’s busy,” Pappenfus said. “The guys are switching each other’s gear out every 30 minutes.”

Before they get back to the fire station after a call, they already begin the cleaning process.

“If they’re really dirty the gear comes off before they get in the truck even, so we aren’t tracking that in the truck. And then it’s on them all the time,” Pappenfus said.

Sartell firefighters get hosed down now at the scene of a fire.

“I don’t want them getting in the truck with that stuff on their person,” Sattler said. “Because the next guy comes in to do a truck check and he’s wearing shorts, he’s going to be exposed to that stuff and it can get on their skin. And that’s a huge hazard.”

Sattler tells his firefighters that, no matter how late it might be and how tired they might be, they need to take additional precautions after heading home.

Take a shower when you get home, he tells them, even if it’s 2 a.m. and you just want to hop in bed.

“I won’t go in my house without taking my clothes off in our mudroom after a structure fire because I don’t want my laundry to get mixed up with my kids’ stuff,” Sattler said. “It’s really a big deal now.”

The study urged fire departments to increase efforts to educate members about safe work practices. This includes proper training, proper use of protective clothing, and proper use of approved respiratory protection during all phases of firefighting.

There is a bill in the Minnesota Legislature to study the state’s firefighters and create a voluntary registry to track the incidence of cancer among firefighters.

Sattler and Sauk Rapids Fire Chief Jason Fleming have recently discussed joining forces to try to get better purchasing power for safer hoods that will provide more protection for their firefighters.

Sauk Rapids used grant money to get new breathing gear for each firefighter, Fleming said.

It’s a dramatic change from when Sattler started nearly 30 years ago. He recalls sometimes going into burning structures without any breathing apparatus to block harmful pollutants.

And he remembers all too well the coughing that sometimes persisted for days after a house fire. It makes him wonder what damage he’s already done to himself before the profession started to pay attention.

“You think about it a lot, that’s for sure,” Sattler said. “It isn’t like you can turn back the clock. It was so different when I first got on. The awareness wasn’t there at first. We’ve come a long way since then.”


Information from: St. Cloud Times, https://www.sctimes.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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