Not so long ago, firefighters allowed dirt and soot to stay on their gear as a badge of honor.
But as cancer rates among responders rise, cleanliness has become a priority and is becoming the new badge of honor.
“Being a soot-ridden firefighter used to show that you were just a veteran and a real firefighter,” Baytown Mayor Brandon Capetillo said. “But that’s not the case moving forward. It’s going to be keeping your bunker gear clear and having additional gear.”
The trend is now in place for recognition that cleaning has to be much more thorough and frequent in order to prevent gear from becoming a continuing hazardous substance source to firefighters. Further, the two-set approach has been instrumental in ramping up the ability to more frequently clean gear and having fire department members in cleaner gear, something the City of Baytown is working to improve.
A key to the shift has been the National Fire Protection Association’s code 1851, which established a standard for the selection, care, and maintenance of fire fighting protective ensembles to reduce health and safety risks associated with improper maintenance, contamination or damage.
Studies have shown inhalation and absorption of carcinogens is how firefighters are most likely exposed to cancer risk, which is why code 1851 has become a guideline for most fire departments across the U.S. and mandatory in Texas.
This standard outlines proper cleaning principles for the contaminated gear, which cannot be washed in the home, at a commercial dry cleaning facility or at a laundromat. And while fire departments commonly rely on outside services providers to clean its contaminated, and carcinogenetic-riddled, gear, the City of Baytown made sure each fire stations can clean sets of Personal Protection Equipment, which consists of bunker coat, pants, hood and gloves, onsite.
The city also implemented a policy last year that aims to keep each firefighter safe at all times even after a fire has been extinguished.
“The policy requires all firefighters to decontaminate themselves after responding to a fire,” Natasha Barrett said, City of Baytown spokeswoman. “The Fire Department has provided decon towelettes firefighters must use to clean their skin before showering.”
In addition, the fire department is working on providing a second set of protective equipment to each firefighter.
“The first set of PPE gear can be properly cleaned and firefighters will immediately have another set of PPE gear ready for the next emergency call,” Barrett said.
Under the same policy, Barrett added that firefighters are required to wear a Self Contained Breathing Apparatus through an entire fire call and even after the fire is extinguished for safety reasons.
“There’s a lot of preventative measures that are being recognized not just by cities but also the firefighters themselves,” Capetillo said. “Our perspective is that we have no firefighters that contract any illness including cancer.”
Beyond cleanliness, the city introduced a wellness program about two years ago that focuses on both the physical and mental health of firefighters. The program offers all firefighters extensive annual physicals based off of the National Fire Association 1582 to ensure they are fit for the job.
“The city also offers peer fitness coordinators who are trained to assist firefighters with their personal nutrition and physical training,” Barrett said. “Another important component of the Wellness Program is mental health care. Our Fire Department Chaplain is currently going through Critical Incident Stress Training to help debrief firefighters after distressing situations faced on the job.”
As an ISO 1 rated fire department, Baytown is always looking for ways to improve under the leadership of Chief Kenneth Dobson, who last year expressed the willingness for the department to become accredited.
Around 270 fire departments in the country are accredited agencies but only about 67 departments in the U.S. have both accreditation and an ISO 1 rating.
The goal is to become a model fire department.
With that reasoning, the city is considering a larger facilities evaluation program for its fire stations. And one aspect of that is mitigating fumes within the stations.
“You don’t think about it but these diesel engines emit a lot of fumes and the firefighters stand around them for sometimes hours,” City Manager Rick Davis said. “So we’re looking at adaptions to fire apparatus to mitigate those fumes. And we’re also looking at adaptions to our fire stations because a lot of time their sleeping quarters are adjacent to the bays and those fumes just kind of hang around.”
Diesel exhaust, which firefighters are exposed both in the station and in the field, as equipment idles during a response, can increase the risks of cardiovascular, cardiopulmonary and respiratory disease, and lung cancer, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
In the city’s crusade to change a culture that in the past revered a soot-ridden firefighter, its focus is both immediate and long-term.
And although a 200-year culture can be a big obstacle, Davis says it is something they will continue to improve on with the help of the fire department and union representatives.