October 24, 2021

New fire protocols aimed at thwarting cancer

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Homer Fire Chief Mahlon Irish Jr. shows a decontamination kit Saturday inside the Homer Fire Department.

When Homer Fire Chief Mahlon Irish Jr. first joined the Homer Fire Department in 1974, there were no protocols for cleaning gear after fires.

Forty years later, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which his doctor said was linked his firefighting background.

“It’s better than the other alternative, so you learn to live with it,” Irish said. “You learn to live with the cards you’ve been dealt.”

The exposure to harmful contaminates contributed to firefighters being 9% more likely to be diagnosed with cancer and have a 14% greater risk of dying from it than the rest of the nation’s population, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Now, the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control is working to provide protocols to help minimize exposure. The office announced its staff would travel the state this year to train the departments.

The protocols focus on decontaminating their gear and preventing the spread of chemicals and toxicants. The steps that firefighters are recommend to take after leaving a scene:

• Rinse off gear with a garden hose to remove large contaminates.

• Spray the gear with a liquid dish soap solution.

• Rinse gear again and wash their helmets.

• Store the gear in bags to be washed later in special washers.

Homer Fire Department implemented similar protocols after Irish was diagnosed, he said. The department has four decontamination kits that include a scrub brush, hose, spray bottle with soap, special wet wipes for firefighters and garbage bags.

Clothes are washed and dried in washers and dryers at the fire department specifically designed to clean firefighting gear.

The new protocols will be useful, said Irish, who has worked on educating firefighters about the risks of exposure. Simple steps like these can help take up to 85% of contaminates off the gear.

“What happens in the future, we can’t say,” he said. “But these fire practices are the best way to minimize our exposure to contracting cancer.”

Similar protocols have also been implemented at the Cortland Fire Department, said Fire Chief Wayne Friedman. Gear is removed after a call stored in bags and washed at the fire station. Firefighters shower and change before returning to duty.

Additionally, Friedman is working to make sure his firefighters wear masks in any smokey condition.

“The most important part is the firefighter’s health, period,” Friedman said.

“Back in the day, we would spray ourselves down, but then get right back in the truck and come back to the station and sit down,” said John Ryan, a driver with the Homer Fire Department. “It’s come a long way.”

The washer and dryer used to clean the gear at the department “is 100% better” than what the department had when Ryan joined in 1975, he said.

The key for the success of these protocols is making sure people do it. “It’s everybody’s responsibility to make sure it works right,” Ryan said.

Irish, who said he spends $22,000 a month on cancer treatment, said he has gone around the state educating other fire departments on the importance of having a system like his in place.

“I look at it this way: if I can save another firefighter from getting into the position I’m at, then I’ll do whatever I need to to do that,” he said.