The leading line-of-duty death for firefighters isn’t getting stuck in a burning building, or falling through an unstable floor.
Firefighters are 14 percent more likely to die from cancer than the general population is, according to a 2013 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Now, St. Louis Fire Department is joining the ranks of departments across the country taking the extra step to protect its firefighters.
With the #BootsOff campaign, the department hopes to implement change, and help reduce the risk of firefighters being exposed to dangerous carcinogens. The department is planning to implement trucks with decontamination packs, and will start allowing immediate on-scene decontamination and allow crews time to shower before they return to service. Four St. Louis firefighters have died in the past nine months because of cancer, the department tweeted Tuesday.
“The insidiousness is that this threat gets you long after ... you’ve relaxed in the knowledge you made it through,” St. Louis Firefighter Wayne Johnson said.
Fires now burn hotter than they ever have before due to the increased use of plastics and other synthetic materials in products, which let off toxic chemicals when they burn, according to an International Association of Fire Fighters report. Those toxic chemicals can seep into firefighters’ skin, even with protective gear on. Prolonged exposure to the chemicals is increasing the rate at which firefighters are dying and being diagnosed with cancer.
Belleville Fire Department started enhancing protection for its crews in 2009, after it had some leftover money from a grant, said Chief Tom Pour. The department bought hundreds of carbon monoxide detectors so firefighters could know when it was safe to take their breathing apparatuses off.
“If they take their breathing apparatus off too soon, it’s putting them at risk for cancer and elevated levels of CO in the blood, and they’re twice as likely to have a heart attack or a stroke,” Pour said.
Firefighters also must wash their gear after a structure fire, and they aren’t allowed to bring it into the station. As time goes on, the department learned more and more ways to keep its crews safe. It installed exhaust removal systems in two older stations to keep them as updated as the newer stations, and bought special wipes that pull dangerous carcinogens our of pores in areas that may have been exposed, like the back of the neck and wrists.
Their gear has a thermal and moisture barrier, so water and carcinogens can’t come through, but the downside is that the gear traps the toxins, Pour said. That means firefighters need to scrub their air-packs and jackets and make sure everything toxic is cleaned off as soon as possible.
“We’re doing everything we can physically to minimize the risk,” Pour said. “Today, the whole industry is more dangerous ... Firefighter safety is the number one thing. We’ll risk a lot to save someone’s life, we’ll risk a little to save someone’s property, but we’ll risk nothing to save nothing.”
If a house or business is already a total loss, firefighters aren’t going to risk their lives to go in and try to save property, Pour said.
“The goal for all public safety people is to go home every night and come back the next morning,” Pour said. “We’re out there to protect the public and property, and we’re making sure our guys come home safe. Thinking long-term is something we have to do.”