It was a badge of honor, dirty gear.
Smoke-scarred protective suits carried a message, St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard said: “You fought fires.”
“It exudes confidence and experience and competence,” he said. “But we’ve really got to change our thinking on that.”
Why? Because the unwashed gear also carries carcinogens and is thought to contribute to the higher rate of cancer among firefighters. So fire departments across the country are trying to clean up the culture around protective equipment by adding high-tech washers and dryers and increasing training about cancer risks.
Minneapolis and St. Paul are adding 29 washers and 33 dryers in fire stations with help from a $1.4 million federal grant. It is one piece of a broad effort in Minnesota to decrease cancer risks for firefighters.
Last year the state created a matching grant program to help smaller fire departments buy washers. Legislators also passed a bill in 2015 banning four toxic chemicals that were frequently used in furniture and household items. Firefighters plan to push the Legislature to prohibit another six chemicals in 2017, Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters President Chris Parsons said.
Awareness of potential health issues tied to dirty gear started to grow in the past few years, following reports on cancer among firefighters, said Parsons, a captain with the St. Paul Fire Department. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in 2013 released the results of a study of 30,000 firefighters that found they had higher rates than the general population of some types of cancer, including cancer of the respiratory, digestive and urinary systems.
But it was seeing co-workers and friends fight cancer that really drove home the need for change, St. Paul Fire Captain Dennis Hall said. He knows at least six fellow firefighters in St. Paul who have been battling cancer in the past couple years.
The cleanup process began before crews left the house fire in St. Paul’s Thomas-Dale neighborhood Tuesday.
Firefighters hosed each other off at the scene and used baby wipes to remove soot from around their necks, one of the areas where they are concerned about absorbing chemicals. Back at the fire house, they rinsed boots and tools and tossed protective suits in a large front-loading washer. They were trying to meet the new guideline to “shower within the hour” after a fire.
The routine has been emphasized in recent training sessions, which were funded in part by the federal grant.
For younger firefighters like Luke Swoboda, the mentality that grimy gear is “the sign of a salty firefighter,” as Hall put it, was never ingrained.
“The sooner you shower after a fire, it could mean years at the end of your life,” Swoboda said as he tossed his gear into a machine at Station 8.
Before last year, Minneapolis and St. Paul each had three of the washers — extractors, as those in the business call them, because they are not typical washing machines, but designed to carefully clean expensive gear. Station 8 had one of the three in St. Paul, and firefighters said they could end up with long waits as people from other stations came by to wash gear.
Many Minneapolis firefighters have been using normal washing machines, but they cause protective gear to degrade faster, Assistant Chief of Operations Charles Brynteson said. The city has not yet added their new extractors and dryers, he said, but he expects they will be installed in stations across the city in the next 60 days.
Before the specially designed machines came along, St. Paul firefighters might take a bucket of water, soap and brush and scrub their equipment, Parsons said. Often, he said, they would not wash it at all.
“People just had dirty turnout gear,” he said. “You would walk into the station and it would smell like, basically, like a house fire.”
New backup gear
The federal grant money also paid for 393 pairs of new protective coats and pants, as well as gear dryers, which look like perforated poles with arms. The air that shoots out of the holes dries out gear in a few hours, Hall said. Before, it took a day or two for the suits to air dry.
Not everyone had a second set of protective equipment, so firefighters said they would rewear dirty gear rather than waiting that long for their suit to dry.
“This is really the first time, probably in both of our history, that we’ve been able to secure two full sets for each firefighter,” Brynteson said of Minneapolis and St. Paul. “We hope it bears fruit in an unforeseen way for years to come.”