RI fire captain injury renews cyanide safety concerns

Capt. Joseph Fontaine was seriously injured after being exposed to cyanide while battling a fire; the department had removed most of their cyanide detectors due to budget cuts


PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A fire captain who remains hospitalized after being seriously injured in a Rhode Island fire has brought renewed attention to the dangers of cyanide for firefighters.

Turnto10.com reported Fire Captain Joseph Fontaine has undergone treatments for cyanide poisoning and is still facing pulmonary issues following his exposure while battling the massive fire. Four other firefighters were also treated for cyanide poisoning following the fire.

"Hydrogen cyanide affects your central nervous system and you get disoriented," Rhode Island Fire Marshal John Chartier said. "You get confused. That's how we lose firefighters in buildings."

Cyanide poisoning is an issue the city has faced before. After a 2006 fire, where 23 firefighters were hospitalized for hydrogen cyanide poisoning, the city installed cyanide detectors in every truck. Nearly 10 years later, most of the devices are gone.

"(It's) kind of taking a step backwards," Captain Joseph Molis said. "There's no cyanide detection at all."

Most of the devices, which reportedly cost about $300 or $400 in 2006, were removed due to budget cuts.

"We can ask and ask and ask," Capt. Molis said. "It comes down to money. They have to make the tough choices of whether to provide that or not."

Capt. Molis said the detection devices would have been helpful in the most recent fire, but also placed some of the blame on firefighters who knowingly continued working after their air packs ran out. 

Paul Doughty, the firefighter's union president, said the firefighters had no choice.

"When their air packs ran out, at times they were forced to maintain their position to make sure that the fire didn't spread because it was that dire of a situation," Doughty said. "It could have turned into a conflagration very, very easily. So, they did operate after their air packs had run out of air."

Capt. Molis said the city needs to work on putting safety first for its firefighters.

"You know, it's not just the cyanide detectors," he said. "We don't have a health and safety officer anymore. There's nobody looking out for the safety of us."

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