RIPON, Wis. — For firefighters, danger does not end when a fire is extinguished, but rather when their personal protective equipment or PPE is clean. While fighting fires, toxic carcinogens that originate from synthetics and plastics absorb into the fabrics of PPE through smoke, which can cause cancer.
Bill Brooks is the UniMac North American sales manager and has been a firefighter for more than 30 years. He says that when he was a newcomer to the firefighting industry, having soot-stained gear was a badge of honor.
“Today, we know the dangers that lurk in the gear,” Brooks says. “Ours is a dangerous profession, and that danger lives on in our soot-covered gear well after the flames are extinguished.”
Chief Joseph Hicks and Assistant Chief Michael Dutcher of the Framingham, Mass., Fire Department took this into account when they gained leadership of the department a few years ago. The department consists of 150 uniformed firefighters dispersed among five different fire houses.
“There was a gap in our overall safety,” says Dutcher, a 21-year fire industry veteran. “The rates of cancer for firefighters versus the general public were astronomical. All these carcinogens were being trapped in firefighters’ PPE. We realized, ‘Wait a minute, we can’t allow this to happen to our people.’”
The impact of cancer on firefighters is clear. According to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, in 2016 70% of line-of-duty deaths for career firefighters were a result of cancer. Even Chief Hicks’ father, who was a firefighter, died from cancer.
“Cancer doesn’t discriminate—it doesn’t matter if you’re a small house or a major metro department,” Dutcher says. “We have to do something about it.”
Previously, the Framingham Fire Department’s 150 firefighters packaged their PPE and sent it to headquarters to be washed by one crew. Often, the crew was responsible for washing and tracking the maintenance of 20 to 30 bags of PPE at once.
When gear was returned mismatched, many firefighters grew frustrated and avoided the laundering process all together, even though the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1851 regulation suggests that PPE be washed after each fire.
Hicks and Dutcher wanted to find a more efficient and organized method of washing equipment to help keep their firefighters safe from dangerous carcinogens and adhere to safety regulations.
In order to finance their quest for safety, the department turned to the city leaders and citizens of Framingham, a city of around 75,000 people. They explained that firefighters were getting cancer from the gear meant to protect them and were met with immediate support.
First, they ensured that each firefighter would have two sets of PPE, so they would always have a pair to use if the other was being cleaned or repaired. Second, they needed a trusted laundry machine for each of the five fire houses. Lastly, they had to find an easy process for tracking the cleaning and maintenance of PPE.
“The UniMac machine that we had had for 10-plus years had served us well,” Dutcher says. “So, we reached out to our local distributor and we said, ‘How do we become more efficient with our system?’”
That is when UniMac Regional Sales Manager Phil Lapenta introduced Hicks and Dutcher to FireLinc, a service offered through UniMac that simplifies the process of tracking equipment maintenance using an application on a tablet.
“Each machine has a FireLinc module inside an iPad,” Dutcher says. “It’s a quick barcode, we scan it, it’s tracked, and now a system that used to take one or two days [now takes] five or six hours between washing and drying, a complete set is done. So, we can get back in service that much quicker.”
The Framingham Fire Department has had a seamless transition to the new laundry equipment. The new protocol is to wash gear after any significant event and hang it to dry in the bay.
“It’s easy to do … the simplicity of the machines and FireLinc, that’s the key,” Dutcher says. “The UniMac machines and FireLinc have helped us do a 180 among the staff. The days of salty, filthy gear are gone.”
Not only does the FireLinc system track which gear is washed and when, it also syncs with the department’s inventory-tracking system, shows on which setting the equipment was washed and exports the wash history to a spreadsheet.
“It helps us adhere to NFPA 1851,” Dutcher says. “Part of that standard is tracking the gear, how it’s washed, when it’s washed, [and at which] temperatures it’s washed. That would be impossible for us to track. We would have to have multiple people dedicated just to that.”
Brooks mentioned that laundry equipment is one of the most important tools to protect firefighters from cancer, but the FireLinc technology is key to effortlessly adhering to NFPA regulations.
“It’s important for firehouses to follow NFPA’s standards, which are put in place for the safety and protection of firefighters,” Brooks says. “Instead of using time and resources logging and tracking the maintenance of PPE, why not have a machine that does it for you?”
The data is easily accessible on a website that allows the user to search the wash date, wash operator, equipment barcode and location. This technology helps hold firefighters accountable for their safety and effortlessly keeps the firehouse prepared for an audit.
“This technology is vital in a busy firehouse,” Brooks says. “It takes away the stress of tediously tracking each firefighter’s PPE maintenance and more importantly, it keeps their gear clean and carcinogen free. The brave men and women serving their communities deserve this peace of mind.”
Thanks to top-of-the-line laundry technology and the dedication of Fire Chief Hicks and Assistant Chief Dutcher, the 150 Framingham firefighters and their families can rest easy knowing that their gear is up to safety standards and well suited to protect them.
“We need to move forward in the fire service and keep our people safe,” Dutcher says. “Not only should every department have machines to clean their gear—they should be mandatory. Keeping our people safe should be our highest priority.”