Wearing dirty turnout gear is no longer cool or macho or a sign of competency (if it ever was). No, wearing contaminated turnout gear exposes you to a higher risk of developing certain types of cancer than other workers.
In 2006, researchers at the University of Cincinnati found that firefighters are twice more likely to develop testicular cancer and have significantly higher rates of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and prostate cancer than non-firefighters. Their findings, which were published in the November 2006 edition of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
A team of doctors analyzed information on 110,000 firefighters — most of them full-time, white males — from 32 previously published scientific studies. They found that firefighters are twice as likely to develop testicular cancer and have significantly higher rates of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and prostate cancer than non-firefighters. The researchers also confirmed previous findings that firefighters are at greater risk for multiple myeloma.
What can you do to reduce the risk? Clean up your turnout gear after every firefighting operation. The sooner you remove the visible contaminants, like soot, and the invisible chemicals and compounds, like benzene, from your gear the sooner you'll have significantly reduced your exposure.
Clean is good and dry is better
Washing is good, but so is getting your gear dry and ready for service as quickly as possible. For many years we relied on hanging our gear anyplace we could find inside or outside the station so that it could air dry. Many of us remember having to don wet or damp gear for the next response.
In recent years we've learned that exposure to sunlight causes degradation of the aramid fibers used in the fabric for today's turnout gear. There are also a few other reasons for getting washed gear dry as quickly as possible including:
Wearing wet gear is dangerous because it can cause steam burns.
Storing wet or moist turnout gear promotes growth of mildew and bacteria, which can lead to health concerns and weaken gear.
Drying wet gear properly will help extend the life of the gear.
These points are also suitable justification for use in preparing grant applications to purchase turnout gear laundry equipment along with these points from NFPA: NFPA recommends fire departments dry gear using forced ambient air; and NFPA recommends that departments avoid using a mechanical style tumble dryer.
When looking at your dryer options, ensure that the dryer meets or exceeds the requirement of NFPA 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Structural Fire Fighting Protective Ensembles. Those requirements are:
The system uses forced air ventilation.
There is no mechanical action, such as tumbling, that can damage gear.
The system operates with or without heated air.
Heated air does not reach gear-degrading temperatures.
There is built-in heater cutoff protection, or a shut-off timer.
From the outside, cabinet-style dryers look very much like the fire hose dryers — the ones with slide-out metal racks — that many of us have in our fire stations. There's a good reason for that: what's good for drying your turnout gear is also what's always been good for drying your fire hose. (But then you knew that, didn't you? You've been placing your cleaned gear in the hose dryer for several years now, haven't you?).
Several of the major manufacturers of hose dryers have re-engineered their products to ensure compliance with NFPA 1851, and to better accommodate the drying needs of turnout gear through the installation of hanging racks in the top of the cabinet.
This makes it possible to dry both turnout gear ensembles and fire hose at the same time. Remove a few drying racks so that the gear hangs from the top of the cabinet while hose is configured normally on racks in the lower half of the dryer. These dual-use drying cabinets provide an efficient and effective option for drying gear and hose, especially for smaller departments.
Manufacturers are also producing dedicated turnout gear drying cabinets. These units look like a taller version of the hose dryer and provide the capability to hang ensemble jackets and pants for effective airflow both inside and outside the garment.
These drying cabinets can also be specified with dedicated airflow ports for the drying of gloves and boots. The price range for cabinet-style dryers is $12,000 to $18,000.
Several manufacturers have developed drying systems dedicated solely to the drying of all components of the structural firefighting ensemble including gloves, boots, helmets and SCBA masks. These systems use fans that push air through gear from the inside out to promote drying in the hard to reach areas and vapor barriers that are prone to mold and mildew if not dried properly.
These freestanding systems include dedicated hanging apparatus for turnout coats and pants; the circulated air flows into the garment's interior from holes in the hanging apparatus. There are system configurations on the market that can accommodate from four to 12 sets of gear at one time.
Who hasn't had the "pleasure" of working in wet boots and gloves? Several of the freestanding systems come with multiple component ports designed for drying other pieces of the turnout gear including helmets, gloves, boots and SCBA face pieces.
An additional benefit of the freestanding systems is that the air blower — used to circulate air through turnout gear — can be easily removed and attached to the discharge and intake ports on your pumping apparatus for quick drying, thus helping to prevent freeze-ups in harsh winter conditions and protect your apparatus.
The price range for freestanding dryers is $6,000 to $18,000.
About the author
Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an active instructor for fire, EMS, and hazardous materials courses at the local, state, and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor of science degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master of science degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Since his retirement in 2007, he has continued to be a life-long learner working in both the private and public sectors to further develop his "management sciences mechanic" credentials. He makes his home near Charleston, W.Va. Contact Robert at Robert.Avsec@FireRescue1.com
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