A small-town VFD’s 6-year journey to minimize carcinogen exposure

The Greensburg VFD has improved its approach to gross decon and PPE laundering to help minimize firefighters’ cancer risks


By Rick Steele

The Greensburg Volunteer Fire Department (GVFD) in Pennsylvania has a long history steeped in the tradition of being innovators and pioneers in the fire service. From the bucket brigades of the late 1700s, to the Pat Lyon hand-pumping engine of the mid 1800s, to the design and construction of a high-expansion foam truck in the mid 1900s, the GVFD has always tried to lead the way.

Many of the more recent accomplishments were the product of Chief Ed Hutchinson and his staff during Hutch’s 63 years as fire chief. Unfortunately, during the tail end of the 90s and early 2000s, the GVFD became stagnant on innovation and focused more on just trying to survive. We found ourselves an older department in terms of membership, comfortable with the status quo, not seeing a reason to change. This had a serious impact on recruitment efforts.           

"The changes that have been made over the last six years in the GVFD are a proactive approach to reducing firefighters’ exposure to cancer-causing products – and we’re not done yet," writes Steele. (Photo/Rick Steele)

On Nov. 14, 2016, Thomas Bell took over as chief. Part of his mission was to kickstart a recruitment campaign and analyze all corners of the department to see where we had become stagnant, even deficient. Further, Chief Bell made it his mission to ensure the highest level of safety for all members of the department. His message, “Everyone goes home safe,” became the theme of this new administration. And Chief Bell’s focus was not just the obvious dangers of the job but also the ever-increasing unseen dangers.           

Today’s homes contain far more synthetic and plastic items than ever before. When these items burn, they give off a multitude of carcinogens. Firefighters can be exposed to hundreds of different chemicals in the form of gases, vapors and particulates. Cancer has become the leading cause of death among firefighters, and Chief Bell wanted his team to do everything possible to protect the firefighters of the GVFD.

Gross decontamination protocol

The first task was to develop and implement an on-scene gross decontamination protocol. The goal was to outfit all five city engines with standardized equipment (housed at a standardized location on the apparatus) to decontaminate firefighters upon their exit from the hot zone.

After a few trips to the local hardware store and digging through the old parts cabinet, the team crafted a rigid shower head device that could be attached to the grab handle used to get into the cab. A 3½-inch garden hose reducer was screwed onto an outlet, with a braided stainless-steel washing machine hose connecting the two. After test-fitting the contraption on the remaining four engines, a few minor adjustments were made.

The final devices were constructed and placed in the rear high-side compartment on all engines. A bucket containing the reducer, braided hose, brush and a supply of Simple Green was stored in the rear compartment. A few tweaks here and there, and by the end of the year, the process was up and running.

PPE laundering

With the large particles being removed, the team then focused on how to coordinate a PPE laundering process that would be uniform across the department.

One of the first solutions presented was purchasing an extractor and dryer for each of the six stations. As this plan was researched, more and more problems became apparent. A rough estimate of the cost was well over $60,000. Even though this number was a bit more than Chief Bell expected, at no point was he going to let cost be the determining factor on moving forward. Unfortunately, as the team dug deeper into this approach, they encountered more and more problems. For one, trying to find the amount of space needed to accommodate this equipment was proving quite difficult. Further, even where the space was available, was it accessible to power, water and a drain?

The new plan: Outfitting just three of the six stations. But how would members from other stations access the stations with the washing equipment? How would we keep good records of who washed what and when? How frequently should our gear be washed? Who would purchase the cleaning products? If a firefighter didn’t wear the gear into a fire, would it still need to be laundered?

Chief Bell devised a new plan. Why not contract with one of the local laundry facilities to provide PPE laundering for the GVFD? The chief and his team developed the rough framework for a gear laundering plan that they felt would meet the NFPA 1851 guidelines and the needs of the department.

After an initial visit with Nu-Way Coin Operated Laundry owner Vaughn Zimmers, Chief Bell was very pleased with his willingness to make the plan work. On Sept. 15, 2018, the department entered into a lease agreement with Nu-Way to provide gear laundering for the next three years.

The plan was for the GVFD to purchase the machines, the cleaning agents, and pay a fee per suit laundered. The laundry was to disassemble, clean, dry and then reassemble each suit within three days of the suit being dropped off. The GVFD Relief Association purchased and installed the extractor and the dryer.

Nu-Way employees were trained to MSA Globe specifications on the proper techniques to launder the PPE. The GVFD firefighters were advised to have their gear laundered after any entry into a structure fire, any exposure to products of combustion, or at least once a year if neither criteria had been met. A monthly report was then issued by Nu-Way to the GVFD Quartermaster to keep an accurate record of the suits that were laundered.

Boots, helmets and SCBA

With a PPE decontamination and laundering plan in place, the focus shifted to cleaning boots, helmets and SCBA. Up to this point, boots and SCBA were generally just hosed off or, at best, given a quick scrub and returned to service. Helmets were never cleaned, inside or out.

A few staff members heard of a machine called the Solo Rescue Decon Washer from RESCUE Intellitech, which advertised its product as providing easy decontamination of SCBA, helmets, face masks, boots, gloves and tools. Developed in Sweden, the Solo Rescue Decon Washer features a rotating basket that enables water jets to reach even the most inaccessible parts of the equipment.

In December 2021, a group of firefighters from the GVFD traveled to New Castle, Pennsylvania, to check out a washer that had been installed in a fire station there. After talking to the installer and the firefighters who used it, and after seeing the machine in action, the group was very impressed. The biggest detractor was that the machine required three-phase power. Fortunately, the national sales manager from the company heard about the department’s interest – and concern about the power – and advised the department that a new machine was being released in April. The Solo DeconWasher Pro S was slightly smaller but only requires single-phase power to operate. Our members had the opportunity to check out a prototype at a fire expo, and after seeing the product in action, the decision was made to move forward with the new version.

The Solo Washer in GVFD Station 8. 
The Solo Washer in GVFD Station 8.  (Photos/Rick Steele)

In July 2022, the GVFD purchased three Solo DeconWasher Pro S machines. Because the machine was manufactured in Sweden, it had to be certified by UL before it could be distributed and installed in the United States. The machines were finally delivered to the Greensburg Department of Public Works on Dec. 13, 2022.           

The next piece of the puzzle was to get the machines installed. The UL testing identified a few modifications that needed to be made prior to installation. Again, more waiting.

Finally, on Feb. 8, 2023, Greensburg Hose Companies 1, 2, and 8 became the first stations in Pennsylvania, and one of only three departments in the United States, to have the Solo DeconWasher Pro S installed. After seeing the dirty water from just one wash, it was obvious our equipment was much dirtier than we ever anticipated. Work has already begun to secure funding to purchase machines for the remaining three stations.

A step in the right direction

The changes that have been made over the last six years in the GVFD are a proactive approach to reducing firefighters’ exposure to cancer-causing products – and we’re not done yet. The next focus for Chief Bell’s group is to find the most effective way to decon the inside of the fire apparatus. While the steps taken in Greensburg may not be the best solution for your department, for us it is a huge step in toward meeting the “Everyone goes home safe!” mission.

About the author

Rick Steele has been president of the Greensburg Volunteer Fire Department in Pennsylvania since 2018 and a member of the fire service since 1988. Steele is a certified Firefighter 2 and a Vehicle Rescue Technician.

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