Fire departments combat cancer exposure in firefighting gear

Peoria Fire Department gear hangs in a room separate from where the trucks are stored.
Peoria Fire Department gear hangs in a room separate from where the trucks are stored.(WEEK)
Published: Aug. 25, 2022 at 5:49 PM CDT
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PEORIA (25 News Now) - Fighting fires is a dangerous enough job, but now the International Fire Fighters Association is warning departments the very gear meant to protect them might be causing a different harm.

Carcinogens from soot, exhaust and other fire scene hazards can get caught in the fibers of firefighting gear, also called “turnout gear.” The dangerous particles trapped inside the gear then seep out into the air that firefighters breathe back in the firehouse.

The Peoria Fire Department said they’ve been trying to combat carcinogen exposure for years, long before this official announcement from IAFF.

“We knew this, we knew this was on the rise but we’ve started the ball rolling as far as getting extractors in the firehouses,” Assistant Fire Chief Rick Morgan said. He recalled in his early years with the department firetrucks would run and pump exhaust into the garage, without the proper ventilation to remove it.

They have several measures in place to keep dangerous particles off the skin and out of the lungs. They treat the gear somewhat like medical equipment. It’s thoroughly cleaned and dried after every use. They store the gear is a separate room away from the truck bay, and they have firefighters immediately wash themselves of the soot and grime following a call.

Inside some of the stations are “extractors,” which is an industrial-sized washing machine using special detergents to remove the dangerous particles and materials, but it doesn’t always remove all the soot.

This machine washes the dangerous particles from firefighter gear after it's used on a fire...
This machine washes the dangerous particles from firefighter gear after it's used on a fire scene.(WEEK)

“We cannot reduce all of the exposure,” Morgan said. “We can control the things on our end to try and reduce our men and women from developing cancer through our initiatives that we have in place.”

In East Peoria, they follow similar practices, though they don’t store their gear in a separate room. They do have special wipes to use on the scene to made specifically to remove toxic materials.

“We hose them off on the scene,” East Peoria Chief Bobby Zimmerman said. “Then once that gear is taken off we have some commercially produced wipes. We want our guys and gals to wash their hands, their necks, their face to try and get any of that sot off immediately.”

East Peoria firefighters get a second set of gear to wear while the first set gets cleaned and dries. PFD is also trying to acquire a second set of gear for their department. As of right now, more than half of current firefighters have that second set of gear. The city has a program in place that will outfit the remainder with a second set of gear within the next five years.