Calif. Firefighters Wear New Hood Gear to Block Cancer-Causing Agents from Fires
April 24--Dirty gear used to be a badge of honor for firefighters, but as cancer rates among responders rises, cleanliness has become the highest priority.
The Oxnard Fire Department--like other Ventura County agencies--has adopted that mindset and received delivery this month of new hoods that keep out microscopic carcinogens from absorbing into firefighters' skin.
Last summer when Alex Hamilton became an Oxnard Fire Department battalion chief, he delved into the science and learned that while breathing in these cancer-causing particles is dangerous, it's actually worse when they are absorbed into the skin.
According to a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the levels of these particles were higher on the neck, throat and jaw line. In addition, the higher the temperature the more permeable the skin is.
"I kind of went down a rabbit hole with it all," said Hamilton, who now oversees the agency's personal protective equipment. "I realized there's so much we could be doing so much better."
Another study done by the institute found that firefighters are three times as likely to develop cancer than the general U.S. population. At least 65 percent of firefighters are likely to get the disease. Structure fires carry the highest risk for exposure because of the toxins released when modern furnishings and plastics combust.
"The statistics for cancer in the fire service was so horrifying to me I had to jump on this," said Hamilton who has seen firefighter friends battle cancer and in some cases die from the disease.
That's why fire agencies across Ventura County have adapted their equipment and cleaning practices to ensure the least amount of exposure.
In his research, Hamilton found that the hoods crews wear play a big role. In the past, the hoods worn under helmets and the turnouts firefighters wear were only made to protect them from heat, Hamilton said. Turnouts are the traditional pants, jacket, suspenders and helmet.
But new material technology at the microscopic level is changing all that. One example is DuPont's Nomex Nano-Flex, which claims to block 95 percent of contaminants that are at least 0.2 micron, a measurement significantly smaller than a strand of hair.
Oxnard started researching new hoods last summer and ultimately chose the Fire Dex H41 Interceptor Hood, which uses the material. In February, the City Council approved the best price of $150 each or a total of $30,000.
This week, the 200 hoods were being passed out to firefighters, but that's not all they were getting. Oxnard firefighters will also get new decontamination procedures and informational materials, Hamilton said.
But Oxnard fire is admittedly playing catch up compared to changes other fire agencies in Ventura County have been making. Most have already implemented the on-scene decontamination process of hosing off their gear or brushing off soot and other particles and not just doing it when asbestos was present.
Santa Paula Assistant Fire Chief Mike LaPlant said these changes have been made over the last 10 to 15 years.
"We try to take advantage of the science that tells us we're getting sick," LaPlant said.
Some of that science said that unwashed turnouts continue to give off harmful gases, he said.
"We've prohibited those items from being brought back into the living quarters," LaPlant said.
All Ventura County fire agencies, now including Oxnard, follow this practice and most departments limit the wearing of dirty gear in the cabs of fire engines. Hamilton said if the cab used to smell like smoke when you came on shift it meant you missed out on a fire.
"And now I'm telling everyone if you can smell smoke inside the cab that's bad. You're smelling cancer," Hamilton said.
When the new hoods were passed out to Oxnard firefighters a pack was also given to crews that was full of bags to put the dirty gear into once they have finished work at the scene. Across the county, the dirty gear is essentially treated as hazardous materials.
Ventura County Fire Capt. Jason Rangel, the agency's personal protective equipment coordinator, said some of county fire's engines are being modified so that the gear can be put into a separate cabinet. He said as new engines are brought in they will likely have that same compartment.
County firefighters also use special wipes on their necks and hands once they are done on scene of a fire, Rangel said. The "rescue wipes" were given to Oxnard firefighters with the new hoods, Hamilton said.
The city of Ventura Fire Department has dedicated, specially trained firefighters that handle the cleaning of the gear.
Industrial strength washing machines called extractors that can cost up to $20,000 are used. Aside from the Fillmore Fire Department, each agency has at least one of these but the larger departments like Oxnard and county fire have more than one. Oxnard has them at each of their eight stations, Hamilton said.
Fillmore Fire Chief Keith Gurrola said his department has gotten City Council approval to buy an extractor and he has applied for grants to purchase one. He said he should know within the next couple months if they've been successful. For now, they head over to Santa Paula to use their department's extractor.
However, in Ventura an entire sterilized room called the "hazmat laundromat" has been created in response to the rise in cancer rates. It has also been retrofitted with non-UV lighting because it won't degrade the gear. All dirty gear is handled there, said Ventura Fire Capt. Luis Manzano.
"In our washroom, we have a saying that's, 'No more names on the wall,'" he said.
Manzano said they are also looking into getting the rescue wipes.
These tools are important because the volume of calls firefighters respond to may not allow them to shower as soon as possible after a structure or vehicle fire, which is the goal. That's why most fire agencies in Ventura County provide crews with two sets of turnouts. Local fire officials said it this practice of doubling up is actually rare.
In Fillmore, it's something that the budget just doesn't allow, Gurrola said. Their full-time firefighters have custom-made turnouts, and the agency is currently working to get their volunteers some as well, Gurrola said.
If the full-time firefighters need a second set, they choose from a range of generic sizes, which is what the volunteers have also generally used. However, Gurrola said in the budget for next year they hope to get the full-time firefighters a second custom set.
"It's been a priority for the City Council and for the fire department...," Gurrola said. "It is the highest priority to ensure that our firefighters have the best protection available to them."
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