COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Through the month of February, we introduced you to firefighters battling cancer in a series called The Fighting 126. Experts say the toxins firefighters are coming into contact with, are getting through the protective suit and absorbing into their skin. Those toxins are then causing several different cancers for firefighters, regardless of their age.
After decades of others states passing similar laws, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed a bill acknowledging cancer as a work related illness in January 2017.
From the materials that are burning, to the protective suits unable to keep the toxins out, firefighters have had to find their own ways to protect themselves.
“I think it’s always in the back of your mind.” Aaron Richnavsky is talking about the thought that one day he could get cancer.
“We can’t prevent everything unfortunately.” Said Firefighter Cody Beacom says they are trying. A lot has changed in firehouses over the past few years. “When I came on, like a lot of other places, people were smoking in the fire houses. A lot of guys smoked,” said Captain Dave Roggenkamp. He said a dirty suit was like a badge of honor. “20 years ago it was like pulling teeth to get someone to turn their fire gear in.”
That is no longer the case. If a firefighter runs into a burning building, the gear is sent to the city’s laundry facility at the fire administration complex on Parsons Avenue. “We went from doing maybe three, four, five sets a week to where we are doing 10 to 12 a day and it just increases every day.” Gear is pre-soaked in tide and then put in industrial washers with a special soap. The suits then have to air-dry before being inspected for quality control. “We’ll wash them today, dry them tonight and tomorrow we will get them back to the station.” said Laundry Tech Supervisor, Ron Taylor.
As of right now, there is no protective layer to keep toxins from getting through firefighter’s suits. “The gear comes in two pieces, an outer shell and an inner liner.” Taylor inspects each suit, looking for any fire or sun damage. If the suit doesn’t pass the test than it is time for a new one. “If it’s real creamy then the moisture barrier is ruined.”
“When they get out, my focus is to get them out in a timely matter and have them get fixed up.” Dave Olney is a safety officer with the Columbus Fire Department. He’s credited with being one of the most instrumental people in implementing new cancer prevention protocols. He said instead of throwing used gear in the back of the fire truck, they put gear into plastic bags before taking them back to the firehouse. “You used to throw it in the cab of the truck, you went back to the fire station, and you take that out and switch it out. Now you’ve contaminated the back of the truck. We’re trying to change all of that.” Olney said there are several policies they are looking to implement including things like putting a truck out of service for an hour after going on a fire call to properly clean everything and the crew can shower. Olney also watches what firefighters are doing on scene and makes sure there is a relief crew there to minimize each firefighters exposure.
Wipes have become a big part of the fire department. “We pay a lot of attention to specific areas like our necks and our foreheads where we are real close contact to our gear,”said Captain Roggenkamp.
While there is still more to be done Firefighters are optimistic. “We take it seriously. We wash our gear. We clean up after a fire,” said Richnavsky.
It’s why our local heroes are The Fighting 126.