By Debra DeCoster
Firefighters race into a burning building knowing they will face extreme heat and possibly life-threatening, thick black smoke. It’s their occupational hazard.
But an unforeseen hazard lurks in the flames and smoke – the risk of cancer.
Studies have found that prolonged, high-level exposure to carcinogens in that flame and smoke can pose long-term health hazards. And that exposure isn’t limited to the fire scene; it lingers well after as the soot, smoke, and unknown contaminants find their way into the firefighters’ gear.
The Kansas City, Kansas Fire Department is taking proactive steps against this cancer risk with Gear Extractor washing machines that remove the dangerous toxins from the clothing. The machines don’t come cheap: Each one costs between $8,500 and $10,000. So far, the department has had enough in its budget to purchase three machines, but it would like to purchase more to make the machines more widely available to the firefighters.
Enter Ashley Kempf, fundraising chairperson for the Kansas City, Kansas Historical Society of the Fire Department. When she heard about this need, she decided to spearhead a fundraiser to help the department purchase four more machines.
“The department has three machines, one at Headquarters, one at station 6, and station 10. Not all of the (18) stations are large enough to accommodate a machine, so we are focusing on putting a machine in each district,” said Kempf.
The firefighter spouses have joined Kempf in the fundraising efforts to purchase four Gear Extractors. They’ve received substantial funding from the Kansas City Royals and Wal-Mart.
Firefighters’ gear, fire coat, pants, gloves and hood are designed to protect them against heat but the soot seeps into gaps around the face, neck, hands and legs. When your body temperature increases five degrees in a fire, your pores open up and absorb up to 400 percent more than usual, leaving firefighters vulnerable to the harmful soot.
Soot-covered bunker gear has been a badge of honor to firefighters. Changing that mindset may take some time, but fire departments across the country are beginning to install Gear Extractor washing machines.
“Firefighters used to keep their bunker gear beside their beds in case they got a call at night. As we learn that carcinogens can be on our clothes, we no longer allow the gear inside the sleeping or living quarters,” said firefighter/EMT Derek Kempf, Ashley’s husband.
Kempf’s concern about the cancer risk is not only for her husband but for others in the department.
“I want to cut the risk of my husband getting cancer if I can and for all the other firefighters,” Kempf said. “Seeing the news on the Gear Extractor washing machines, I knew I had to try to get them in the stations here.”
Studies show that it helps if the firefighters have a second set of gear to change into while they wash the dirty bunker gear. Cleaning their gear is currently done on their days off, as it takes at least four hours to dry their fire coat and pants.
Interim Fire Chief Kevin Shirley said the department is working towards purchasing a second set of bunker gear. A rough estimate to purchase another coat and pants could run $1,800 each. New hoods cost $25 each. The department has purchased additional hoods.
Fire departments across the country have new procedures towards cancer prevention. They encourage changing hoods out often, cleaning their bunker gear in the Gear Extractor and using fire wipes to clean their skin after being exposed to a hazardous environment.
After a fire, firefighters are encouraged to take recommended steps to remove soot or contaminants that may be on the skin.
“As part of the cancer prevention, we are encouraged to use the fire wipes, shower to remove the soot and grime, wash our bunker gear to reduce our risks of cancer,” said Derek Kempf.