Soot, grit and grime once were the height of fashion at American firehouses. Strutting around in a singed helmet and smudged turnout gear let the world know that you were one tough firefighting son of a gun.
“For some it’s still like the red badge of courage,” said Herington, Kan., fire chief Ken Staatz.
But the smart ones know better. Parading in filthy turnout gear after a fire is out is forbidden at many fire departments now. Dirty bunker gear, as firefighters’ protective clothing is also known, poses a cancer risk to firefighters and to those with whom they come in contact.
“It is vital to the health of firefighters to properly clean bunker gear following a fire to prevent the transfer of carcinogens, particulates and biohazards,” the Kansas state fire marshal said recently in announcing a new cancer-prevention program.
The occasion for that statement was to announce the first awards from a fledgling Kansas grant program, partly aimed at cancer prevention. Some of the $200,000 allocated this year was spent buying heavy-duty washing machines called extractors to clean toxin-laden coats, pants and hoods.
Extractors are potential life savers at fire departments that previously were without them and had no practical way of cleaning their gear before the $8,000 machines arrived.
“Before we pretty much washed them off with a garden hose and let them dry,” said Chris Komarek, the volunteer fire chief and city administrator in Ellinwood, Kan. “The hose method by no means gets rid of all the toxins.”
Nationwide, fire departments large and small are focusing increasingly on cancer prevention in response to studies showing firefighters contract cancer at higher rates than the population at large.
Exposure to carcinogenic smoke and gasses is blamed. Air masks and protective clothing provide protection. But firefighters inhale and absorb toxins when the smoke clears and the masks come off. Soot and smoke also become embedded in turnout gear and work their way into gaps, such as where the face masks contact the hoods.
So now many fire departments carry wet wipes on their trucks, instructing firefighters to remove as much soot as possible from their faces, necks and hands before they leave a fire scene. Also, it’s important to shower as soon as they get back to the station and put on a clean duty uniform.
One of the bigger changes in firefighter culture in recent years is the attitude toward protective clothing. Nicknamed bunker gear because firefighters used to keep it at the ready by their bunks, now it’s not allowed anywhere near the living area. And dirty gear gets laundered as soon as possible at some departments.
“After a fire, they bag it up and ship it over to the stations that have washers,” said Overland Park Fire Department spokesman Jason Rhodes.
But that’s not always possible in every fire department because not every firefighter in every department has two sets of gear. Kansas City, Kan., firefighters, for instance, are only issued one set due to budget constraints. Laundering turnouts is, therefore, done on firefighters’ days off, if they can manage it.
“This is something we are going to solve,” Kansas City, Kan., Fire Chief John Paul Jones said, noting his department’s application for a federal grant to buy gear and more extractors was recently denied.
Across the river in the other Kansas City, firefighters do have two sets of gear. But some complain that it’s tough getting it washed if they fight a lot of fires and their station doesn’t have an extractor. Only 13 of the 34 stations do.
“I work at one of the busiest units in the city,” said one firefighter, who said he would get in trouble if his name was published, “and I have to load my stuff up and wash it at another station close to my home, usually on my day off. Each station should have gear washers.”
That is the goal, said deputy chief Jeff Johnson, who is overseeing implementation of the department’s new cancer prevention effort. One element: have battalion chiefs distribute clean hoods after every fire.
Lee’s Summit, Independence and other area fire department are also ramping up their efforts.
The Independence Fire Department and its union, Local 781, are proud of an agreement they signed last year that sets out 11 decontamination steps fire companies should take during and after every fire.
National cancer statistics drove the discussion. But Independence Fire’s joint cancer committee also took as its inspiration the sobering cancer death of one department captain and the cancer survival story of another.
“We certainly are beating the drum as loud as we can,” Deputy Chief Mark Carrick said.