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Chiefs add safety procedures, gear to prevent cancer among firefighters

The Columbus Division of Fire now will dispatch firefighters in two separate units: one to fight a fire and another to do the overhaul


By Lucas Sullivan and Mike Wagner
The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio fire chiefs are taking swift steps to reduce cancer rates among their firefighters, including creating new procedures for fighting fires and buying more safety gear.

The moves come after a Dispatch series in October that detailed the high risk of work-related cancer among firefighters and the need for better safety protocols.

In the past month, fire chiefs in Cleveland and Columbus have begun to enact sweeping policies and discuss long-term strategies to protect their firefighters from harmful chemicals and exposure to carcinogens.

In Columbus, Chief Kevin O'Connor began making the changes the day after The Dispatch held a forum on Nov. 15 to discuss the cancer rates plaguing firefighters. The Fire Division now will dispatch firefighters in two separate units: one to fight a fire and another to do the overhaul -- the process of tearing into walls and ceilings looking for smoldering fire, as well as cleaning up the scene.

O'Connor also is making it a priority to have gear cleaned right away.

"I want every one of our firefighters to have a long, rich life," he said. "They made the commitment to protect the citizens of Columbus, and we want to make sure we are protecting them."

In Cleveland, Chief Angelo Calvillo issued his first written general order calling for firefighters to immediately exchange the gear they wear at a fire scene for a clean set. They also will get time after a fire to decontaminate instead of being put back in service immediately to fight another fire.

"It's definitely a step in the right direction," said Tim Corcoran, president of the Cleveland firefighters union.

Earlier this year, Calvillo rescinded a verbal order that allowed firefighters to take themselves out of service to clean themselves and their equipment after a fire. Calvillo was concerned that his department would not be able to respond to emergency calls if too many firefighters were out of service. Union officials challenged the move, and the two sides later began working toward possible solutions.

Firefighters and their supervisors in Ohio and across the country called for meaningful changes inside and outside the fire service to reduce cancer threats examined in The Dispatch series "Unmasked," which is available online at Dispatch.com/unmasked. The five-day series detailed the high rate of cancer among firefighters and the struggle within firefighting services to address the issue.

Much of the series chronicled the life of Columbus firefighter Mark Rine, 36, a father of five. He has terminal cancer that has been attributed to his work as a firefighter, and has saved an uncounted number of other firefighters with his one-man cancer-prevention efforts.

Rine has traveled around Ohio and beyond during the past three years to warn firefighters of their exposure to carcinogens, such as flame-retardant chemicals, and other toxins released into the air when buildings and vehicles burn.

As part of its reporting, The Dispatch conducted two statewide surveys of professional, full-time firefighters and fire chiefs from across Ohio.

Among the findings: One in 6 of the nearly 1,300 firefighters who responded to the survey said they had been diagnosed with cancer at some point in their careers. About 50 percent said they believed that cancer was their biggest threat on the job.

Nearly 95 percent of the 360 fire chiefs surveyed said that cancer is the greatest occupational threat to their firefighters, but only about half provided cancer-prevention training or had rules in place to reduce the cancer threat.

The lack of nationwide standards to prevent cancer, the lack of money in many communities for proper safety equipment, and a lingering macho culture that downplays safety precautions have been the biggest obstacles to changes in the fire service, the newspaper found.

Firefighters are at least 14 percent more likely than the public to develop cancer.

They're twice as likely to get skin and testicular cancer and mesothelioma -- a cancer that grows in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart and is caused by asbestos, according to a 2015 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Sweeping changes to protect firefighters from the cancer threat are not limited to big-city station houses; some fire chiefs in smaller cities and townships and of small volunteer departments in rural areas have made or are making real changes that ultimately will help save the lives of their firefighters.

That is the case at the Findlay Fire Department, where a visit by Rine last winter had a profound effect on city leaders, who weren't aware of how deadly cancer had become in the fire service. Those city officials pledged their financial support to Findlay Chief Joshua Eberle and his 63-member department, and they have kept their word.

Each firefighter in the Findlay department now has two sets of gear. Firefighters have started to order and install vehicle-exhaust-removal systems in each of their four station houses, and they have bought extractor washing machines for two stations to clean gear. A federal grant also will help replace the self-contained breathing apparatus for each firefighter.

Eberle also implemented policy changes, including making the incident commander at each scene responsible for ensuring that firefighters keep their gear on while responding to fires. Firetrucks are equipped with decontamination buckets that contain wipes, brushes and hoses.

All the cancer-prevention efforts are personal in Findlay. One firefighter has died of what's believed to have been occupational cancer, and many more have been diagnosed with forms of the disease.

"We always focus on the dangers of the job being the actual fire or a collapsing building, or the past decade, it was more of heart attacks," Eberle said. "But the biggest danger to us of all is cancer, and it's not close. The statistics are scary."

The Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation awarded $331,000 in grants this month to 33 departments in the state to help them buy gear or equipment that reduces the cancer threat.

Columbus received about $12,000 to buy fabric hoods that firefighters wear under their helmets. National studies have found that swapping out hoods for clean ones immediately after fighting a fire greatly reduces exposure to carcinogens.

BWC plans to award $2 million annually to departments in the state to help reduce cancer.

Ben French, an assistant chief at the Pleasant Township Fire Department in Clark County, is one of the many fire chiefs who took advantage of BWC's grant program to improve that department's cancer-prevention efforts.

The $12,805 grant will allow Pleasant Township to buy one extractor/washer to clean gear, 25 sets of washable gloves, and 25 barrier hoods for its 22 firefighters. Once the new equipment arrives, the department will implement a standard operating procedure for cancer prevention.

"We are all aware of the stuff that is burning now -- as opposed to 40 years ago -- and what it can do to us," French said. "It's all about reducing our risk. We not only want them to go home safely after each shift, but also have a happy retirement."

Copyright 2017 The Columbus Dispatch

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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