New turnout gear is latest step by WWFD to mitigate cancer risks for firefighters

Captain Chris Seelenbrandt of the West Warwick Fire Department dons his new turnout gear, equipped with a particulate barrier to help mitigate the risks from exposure to toxic smoke.

WEST WARWICK — From burns to crush injuries, firefighters face a number of physical dangers day in and day out. But the job hazards don’t end when the truck pulls back into the firehouse.   

“Unfortunately, in fire service today one of the big topics is cancer,” West Warwick Battalion Chief Eric Norberg said Thursday, as he spoke about the benefits of the department’s brand new turnout gear, designed to mitigate those risks. 

According to a study by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, years of exposure to carcinogenic smoke make firefighters in the U.S. 9 percent more likely than the general population to receive a cancer diagnosis, and 14 percent more likely to die of cancer.  

With life safety as its primary goal, the fire department doesn’t only have an obligation to protect the public, Norberg added, but also to protect its employees. 

“Our most important resources are our human resources,” he said. 

The department recently purchased in two phases 22 new sets of turnout gear. The gear, which includes protective coats and pants, features barriers to block contaminated particulates and protect firefighters from exposure to the dangerous toxins that could lead to cancer. 

New protective hoods worn with the gear also have particulate barriers. 

“In an average home everything’s plastic nowadays,” Norberg said of the contaminated smoke firefighters are exposed to. “That’s our society, and we just have to adapt to that.”

Firefighters aren’t only at risk due to smoke inhalation, however. Without gear designed to block them, contaminants can be easily absorbed through the skin, Norberg pointed out.

“Most people would think, you breathe in smoke and it goes into your body,” he said, “but a lot of it’s the soot and the contaminants on our skin.”

The new gear is one of several recent steps taken by the department to help reduce the cancer risk for its firefighters.

A recent policy within the department calls for scrubbing gear “in place” as soon as firefighters emerge from a blaze, Norberg said. 

“Simple soap and water, studies have shown, can reduce up to 75 or 80 percent of the contaminants,” he said. 

The department stocks cleansing wipes specifically made for removing carcinogenic debris from skin, as well. Those get used on scene, and when firefighters return to the firehouse after a call, they take showers before dressing in clean uniforms. 

The department also stresses frequently washing soiled turnout gear using a washing machine at the firehouse built specifically for extracting contaminants. 

Another step that was taken years ago, Norberg added, was the installation of diesel exhaust capture systems so that when fire trucks are turned on in the station, exhaust isn’t released until the trucks pull outside. 

“That diesel smoke would stay in the firehouse, where we eat, sleep, live for upwards of 24 hours,” he said.  

Despite garnering a good deal of attention over recent years, the emphasis on protecting firefighters from health dangers is, in fact, relatively recent, Norberg pointed out.  

“All of this hasn’t happened consistently in the history of fire service,” he said. “There’s been a big push, and I can only speak for my department, but I think we’re doing a very good job of trying to initiate some of that.”

But while the West Warwick Fire Department has adopted a number of practices to stave off cancer risks in its firefighters, there are still a few steps Norberg said he’d like to see taken.  

Norberg said he hopes to eventually have enough particulate-blocking hoods to be able to conduct on-scene “hood swaps,” ensuring firefighters are able to throw on clean hoods each time they exit a fire. 

“Instead of putting one that’s already contaminated back around their neck, throat and jawline,” he said. “Research has shown that’s where a lot of the absorptions happen.”

Norberg added that he’d also like someday to have enough turnout gear so that each firefighter can have a backup set.

Because it takes up to eight hours to wash and air dry the turnout gear, if there are two calls within one work shift, firefighters are likely to have to respond wearing contaminated gear.

That initiative, however, would be a pricey one, and could take some time, Norberg said — each set of the personal protective pants and coat costs around $2,600.  

“Things cost money — we all know that,” Norberg said. “There’s a cost to everything, but what I like to look at is, what’s the value? The value of all these protective measures is healthy firemen and not paying enormous medical bills because they’re sick in five years.”

“Down the road,” he continued, “the value is, hopefully, a healthy, safe firefighter.”

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