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Firefighters rely on proper gear

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

City of Cortland Fire Capt. Mike TenKate opens a vintage Wascomat brand washing machine Tuesday in the basement of the fire station on Court Street. Cleaning turnout gear is one way to protect firefighters from cancer risks from their work.

If asked to think of the dangers faced by firefighters on a daily basis, the image of one rushing into a burning building might be the first that comes to mind.

But there are other serious risks that may not be so obvious.

In April 2014, doctors diagnosed Mahlon Irish Jr., a retired Ithaca firefighter, Homer volunteer firefighter and Cortland County deputy fire coordinator, with stage four prostate cancer. When he was diagnosed, the doctor said it was 95 percent likely his career as a firefighter was a factor in contracting the disease. Irish is now 60.

In July, researchers with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health released findings from a five-year cancer study of firefighters in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

The study, which did not differentiate between paid and volunteer firefighters, showed higher rates of digestive, oral, respiratory and urinary cancers among firefighters than the general population.

Primary types of cancer seen, according to the study, included lung, brain, stomach, esophagus, intestinal, rectal, kidney, bladder, prostate, testicular, leukemia, multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

One thing about Irish’s cancer, he pointed out, is that it has not restricted his activities. “Physically, I feel fine,” Irish said.

Through research, Irish said he has found that firefighters are 2 1/2 times more likely to get cancer. Career firefighters are also 60 percent more likely to develop some form of cancer, with 64 percent dying from their diagnosis, Irish said.

However, they can take precautions to minimize their exposure to the dangerous chemicals that the job exposes them to on a daily basis. These safeguards are expensive and come in the form of the proper gear and following all the recommended procedures to ensure that equipment is clean when used.

When it comes to the cost of equipment, costs vary. For average turnout gear, prices range between $2,500 to $2,800, and for the gear washers, average prices range from $10,000 to $13,000, Irish said. The cost for air packs, or self contained breathing apparatus, is around $8,000 a unit, he said.

A gear washing machine is an especially important piece of equipment for fire departments to have, Irish said, because it ensures the equipment worn by firefighters in almost any fire situation is properly washed and cleaned of carcinogens.

The gear washer or extractor resembles a household washer, only bigger. It cleans turnout gear used by firefighters after each fire.
Turnout gear is the term used for the equipment worn by firefighters to protect them during a fire, Irish said. This includes boots, pants, coat, gloves, hood and helmet, Irish said.

During a fire, burning materials can release chemical carcinogens, Irish said. Those chemicals can seep into turnout gear. If that gear is not washed properly, carcinogens can enter into the body through the skin, Irish said. Other chemicals can also cause deterioration in turnout gear.

For about 10 years, the Homer Fire Department has had a washer and dryer unit. However, the department just recently received a FEMA grant to buy a new washer and dryer system, Irish said.

After applying last year, the Cortland Fire Department received an Assistance to Firefighters Grant in the spring. This will allow the department to buy two washers, a dryer and steel storage lockers, said Deputy Chief Wayne Friedman.

The department has had the current washer for around 30 years, Friedman said.

Common practice by the city fire department includes bringing equipment back from a call and throwing it into the washer, Friedman said.
Next, firemen who responded take showers to clean themselves of any transferred chemicals, he said.

The department has extra gear for members left without gear during the washing phase, Friedman said.

The Cortlandville Fire Department also has two washers, said Chief Jared Gebel. One of the washers is roughly four years old and the other is 15 years old, Gebel said.

In Cincinnatus, Chief Shawn Scoville said most of the department’s interior firefighters do have the recommended two sets of turnout gear.

Funding for the gear, which needs to be replaced every 10 years, comes from the department’s budget, Scoville said. “The fire department is based on taxpayer money,” Scoville noted. “We budget X amount of money a year for turnout gear.”

With regard to a gear washer, Scoville said the department does not have its own and has used Cortlandville’s before or just sent the gear out to the manufacturer to get cleaned.

Scoville said the department has looked into purchasing a washer but is also looking into a new facility as a whole.

Harford Fire Chief Daryl Cross said his department also does not have its own washer but uses Virgil’s washer when needed.

When it comes to turnout gear, each interior member has only one set, Cross said.

Besides the gear washer being an important piece of equipment, officials agree that air packs, self-contained breathing apparatus, are the next best pieces of equipment for departments. “It keeps you breathing in good air and not junk,” Cross said.