Just as firefighting has changed dramatically from the days of horse-drawn pumps carrying pressurized water, so have the fuels that feed structure fires.
“Almost anywhere you go now, there are chemicals in the materials in the fire,” Whiteville Fire Chief David Yergeau said. “Engine exhaust is recognized as a carcinogen. The cancer rate among firefighters is 14 percent higher than the general population, and that’s in part because of the chemicals we’re exposed to on a regular basis.”
Thanks to a federal grant, Whiteville’s fire station on Columbus Street is a little bit safer for the 20 firefighters who spend time there. A Prymovent exhaust system was recently installed, along with a heavy duty, specialized washer-dryer set that removes dangerous substances from turnout gear.
Yergeau said he had been applying for the grant to fund the improvements for several years.
“I’m just glad we finally got approved,” he said. “This is important for the health and wellbeing of our firefighters.”
The Prymovent system uses large hoses that attach to truck exhaust pipes. The system automatically activates when a sensor detects a running engine. A special release system gently detaches the Prymovent pipes when trucks roll out of the firehouse.
Since each vehicle is cranked at least once per day, every day, Yergeau said exhaust buildup in the department can become dangerous very quickly without a ventilation system.
“We have the doors open on a regular basis,” he said, “but in bad weather or in winter time, we can’t heat the whole outdoors. The doors have to be shut, and the exhaust can get fairly strong.”
Fire departments have been struggling with toxic chemicals on turnout gear since before Sept. 11, 2001, but the deaths and illnesses of so many first responders working at the Twin Towers site brought the problems of work-related cancer to the forefront.
Some departments use readily-available heavy duty washers and dryers, typical machines aren’t made for cleaning the fire-resistant and waterproof gear worn by firefighters. The old practice of washing turnout gear with garden hoses and dish detergent has been set aside due to the increasingly virulent nature of some of the chemical combinations created in structure fires.
The specialized washer-dryer combo safely cleans turnout gear without endangering groundwater or the person handling the laundry. The appliances will also help extend the life of the turnout gear, saving money for the taxpayers.
Yergeau said the even though federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules require a clean and safe working environment, “most fire departments want to protect our firefighters anyway.
“This is protecting the firefighter, and protecting the taxpayer’s investment in our firefighters,” Yergeau said. “Our people are our most valuable resource, and we need to take care of them.
“The cancer rate among firefighters goes up every year,” Yergeau said. “We have to do all we can to lower that risk for our guys. It’s the right thing to do.’