LUGOFF, S.C. — Being a firefighter is a dangerous job.
Fire, smoke, other noxious fumes—there are many hazards these front-line individuals face.
Most people, however, wouldn’t think that a firefighter’s gear could be a hazard, but it can be and it is.
The gear needs to be laundered properly to remove carcinogens. The Lugoff, S.C., Fire Department learned about this potential health hazard and did something about it.
American Laundry News spent some time with Chief Dennis Ray to talk about the department’s recently purchased laundry equipment to help combat carcinogens in the gear.
Q: In fall 2016, the Lugoff Fire Department bought new laundry equipment. Tell us about the new equipment and how it’s working for you.
Ray: We purchased a UniMac® 45-pound washer-extractor and the UniMac drying cabinet. Our main reason for purchasing the equipment was to quickly and efficiently decontaminate all of our firefighting gear to get it back in service as quickly as possible.
This is by far the quickest, most efficient way to decontaminate firefighting gear following an incident or fire. Previously, we would send our gear out to other departments to be cleaned, and it would take three to four days. Now it takes five to six hours for the gear to be decontaminated.
Our mission, and what we are trying to accomplish, is that firefighters will never need to put contaminated gear back on their body after a fire or incident.
Q: We understand there were many reasons for the upgrade, but the overarching theme was reducing carcinogens in firefighters’ gear. How did you learn about the carcinogens?
Ray: The South Carolina Firefighters Association launched a cancer awareness campaign throughout South Carolina. The campaign helps to raise awareness of all the contributing factors to cancer cases in firefighters, not only in the state, but throughout the nation. It brings out variables we can address as fire chiefs to minimize our firefighters’ exposure to cancer-causing agents, which in our business are everywhere.
A lot of people think it is just the smoke that is the biggest cancer-causing substance, and that is very important, but it is basically all of the byproducts of fire and combustion that are exposing our firefighters to numerous carcinogens. The contamination on the turnout gear eventually absorbs into the skin.
Even if we do everything right by wearing the proper breathing apparatus and turnout gear, firefighters are still exposed to dangerous carcinogens through the byproducts of combustion absorbing into our skin. One of the most recommended ways to protect the firefighters is to decontaminate gear immediately, or as soon as possible, after an incident. Before we had the equipment, we did not have this capability. We had to send our gear out to other departments to be cleaned.
Q: You used a grant to purchase the new equipment. How did you learn about the grant, and what was the approval process like?
Ray: This particular grant was a local grant in Kershaw County in South Carolina through a Help Foundation. The grant was advertised through many avenues, primarily through the local newspaper, which is where I learned about it. The grant was to provide funding for health-related deficiencies in agencies. Knowing about the South Carolina Firefighters Association awareness campaign and cancer in the fire industry, I thought this would be a great opportunity.
We needed to fill out an application for the grant, providing a narrative reasoning for why the equipment was needed and how it is related to healthcare and health-related issues. I also gave a 20-minute presentation in front of the grant panel, who evaluated and scored all of the different grant applications and presentations.
We were fortunate to receive the grant, and they awarded us 100% of our grant request. With the grant, we were able to pay for the equipment in full, the cleaning agents used, and some wiring and plumbing work that needed to be done in order to install and operate the equipment. The grant fully paid for everything we needed for our equipment to be in service as it is today.
We are always looking for grant opportunities and continue to look for them to supplement our tax income. We are fully tax-based and the tax money keeps the firehouse open and operating, but we can be limited and need to be creative to find funding opportunities to meet a lot of the additional needs.
Q: Besides reducing carcinogens, what other benefits have you seen from the new laundry equipment? What other laundry do you use it for?
Ray: The equipment is used 100% for firefighting gear and our hoses, and it has provided many benefits. The greatest benefit is that it is helping more than our department. Other fire departments are bringing their gear to us to be cleaned. It has been a great aid to them, because within one day their gear is cleaned and dried, and many of these are volunteer fire stations.
Additionally, the gear is placed back into service so much quicker than it was. This has been a big difference. We also use the drying cabinet for the fire hose. It is decontaminated outside and then we place it on the shelf of the cabinet. Previously, it would have to dry outside for a few days, and now it is back in service significantly faster.
Another benefit is the washer-extractor decontaminates bloodborne pathogens, which is something we did not have before. There is a separate cycle for the decontamination of bloodborne pathogens, which we are exposed to and respond to frequently, and that cycle is followed up by a normal wash cycle.
Q: Since purchasing the equipment, have you been in contact with other fire departments (or other laundries) wanting to hear about your experience?
Ray: Yes, we have had two fire departments in our county that have come out to look at our equipment. We have also shared our grant narrative so that they can apply for similar opportunities. One of the departments recently received the grant; the other is still pending on the federal level.
Additionally, numerous fire personnel have asked about the equipment and I’ve spoken to them in detail about how the equipment is used and how important it is.
Q: If you could share some of your experience with other fire department laundries, what would you tell them?
Ray: First, I would tell them the importance of doing everything we can as fire chiefs and public safety directors to provide safety for our personnel, and to try to protect them from unnecessary exposures as best as we can. This is one of the areas we can improve on as a fire service to make sure our personnel have better protection from dangerous chemicals.
The danger we face in this job is every day. It’s a normal part of our job to face these dangers, especially byproducts of combustion and fire, so we need to step up and find better ways to protect our personnel since we know that these dangers are there.
Additionally, the minimal expense of purchasing the equipment compared to the benefits it provides for decontamination is incomparable. Agencies and departments need to be creative to find other grant and funding opportunities outside of normal income to make these types of projects happen.