Building a firefighter health and safety program: One department’s 3-pronged process
The Mesquite (Texas) Fire Department focused on turnout gear additions and cleaning, SCBA scrubbing and exhaust removal
By Wayne Larson
A growing body of research and data underscores the contribution of occupational exposures to the development of chronic conditions and illnesses, including cancer, in firefighters. And the numbers prove the dangers: Firefighters face a 9% increase in cancer diagnoses, and a 14% increase in cancer-related deaths, compared to the average person in the United States, per the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
With NFPA standards and best practices in mind, during the past two years, the Mesquite (Texas) Fire Department has invested more than $400,000 in a focused cancer prevention initiative to improve the health and safety of its firefighters.
“The protection of our firefighters is essential,” said Mesquite Fire Chief Mark Kerby. “They must know that they have the best possible equipment and training available to perform their job. Firefighters have a higher rate of cancer than the average citizen due to the dangers of their job. Mesquite is doing everything it can to reduce those dangers.”
Following is the department’s three-pronged approach to improving the health and safety of its members.
1. Duplicate turnout gear
A key component of this program was purchasing backup bunker gear so that every firefighter has two sets for every 24-hour shift. And as of summer 2020, every Mesquite firefighter assigned to an operational position has been provided a second set of bunker gear that is sized specifically for them. If one set of gear is worn in a fire during the shift, they can use their second set of gear while it is being cleaned, reducing their exposure to the carcinogens encountered at the earlier fire scene.
A fire captain oversees the delivery and fitting of each set of bunker gear and is present to provide guidance on its proper use and maintenance. As gear is replaced, new sets are purchased that have been designed with additional flaps and coverings to offer elevated protection from carcinogens. The personalized attention to detail and updated bunker gear ensures each Mesquite firefighter has gear that both fits properly and provides a greater degree of protection than in years past.
Additionally, each of the city’s seven fire stations now has a specialized industrial laundry machine (extractor), uniquely engineered to remove the cancer-causing carcinogens from bunker gear.
In 2020, Mesquite became one of three municipal fire departments in Texas to acquire a Solo Rescue Decon Washer to clean SCBA equipment for every firefighter involved in a fire incident. This machine allows for more thorough, efficient and safe cleaning of SCBAs than could be achieved through cleaning the SCBAs by hand, and it can also be used to clean additional firefighting equipment, including boots, helmets and gloves. The department has trained technicians on staff to operate the cleaning machine, as well as to maintain all department SCBAs.
3. Exhaust removal
Lastly, Mesquite’s fire station bays have special exhaust capture and ventilation systems for their vehicles. This equipment attaches to the exhaust pipes of the department’s trucks, engines and ambulances. It allows for the proper and safe collecting and venting of cancer-causing vehicle fumes away from the firefighters in the enclosed areas as they leave the station and return from incidents.
As Kerby summarized, “Having back up protective equipment, clean SCBA and special facilities helps lessens the exposure to these toxic chemicals.”
Mesquite’s senior leadership and City Council have enthusiastically supported this program. The City Council budgeted approximately $260,000 for 119 sets of new bunker gear, invested $110,000 to install bunker gear extractors in all fire stations, and bought the SCBA cleaner for $30,000.
Additionally, the City planned for additional layers of safety when it built a new fire station.
Fire Station #4, which was opened this summer, was constructed on a budget of $5.8 million and includes major innovations and enhanced safety and health amenities for the firefighters.
The 13,989-square-foot station replaces a 4,500-square-foot station that was built in 1963. The new facility features specially designed air-lock entry areas that prevent carcinogens from entering the living quarters from the station bay. This passageway from the firefighting equipment to the areas where the firefighters eat and sleep is essential, providing an extra level of protection for them and visiting family members as well as other guests in the living quarters. Additionally, the station has special showers located immediately off the bay for firefighters to use if needed to keep contaminates outside the station living quarters. This showering area complements the importance of cleaning the carcinogens from the skin of the firefighters, just as the extractors have for cleaning the equipment and exhaust systems have for keeping the immediate vehicle areas clear of the dangerous material in the air.
Designed by Brown Reynolds Watford Architects and constructed by SEDALCO Construction Services, Mesquite Fire Station No. 4 is an example of placing firefighter health as the top priority in the process of station design.
An investment in people
We believe that Mesquite’s three-step process of cleaning protective clothing, scrubbing the breathing equipment, and reducing exposure to carcinogens in its fire station bays and living quarters has placed the department as one the leaders in firefighter safety in Texas.
Kerby, who will retire from the department on Sept. 30, praised the entire leadership team that played a huge role in all these new safety measures: “The City has been a tremendous advocate and champion of the program. They have created an environment and culture that makes the health of our firefighters a top priority. It has helped limit the exposure of our firefighters to the dangers of carcinogens.” He added that the two-year timetable to plan, implement and complete the initiative was extraordinary. From building budgets, to building a fire station as well as acquiring the equipment, many employees for several city departments helped make the success of the program a reality.
City Manager Cliff Keheley added: “Safety innovation is an investment in our people. Anything we can do to provide a safer work environment for our firefighters is a benefit to the entire community. They keep us safe, and we need to keep them safe.”
About the Author
Wayne Larson, APR, CPC, is the director of communications and marketing for the city of Mesquite, Texas.