MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - A Grand Strand fire department is hoping to secure a $250,112 grant to help fight cancer among firefighters. This is the second time Myrtle Beach Fire Rescue has applied for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant, also called AFG Grant, through FEMA. The department wants to use the money, if awarded, to buy exhaust capture systems.
Seth Holzopfel is a Myrtle Beach firefighter and president of the firefighter's union in Myrtle Beach. As part of the union, he's helped review and revise the grant to increase its chances of approval. Holzopfel said the department also applied for the AFG Grant last year for the systems, but failed. He said applying and successfully acquiring the grant is extremely competitive, but he hopes for success this year.
"It's very competitive, like people score in the 97th percentile range and don't get the grants," Holzopfel said.
The department is competing against other fire departments across the country for some of the money available. Myrtle Beach Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Gwyer said hundreds of millions of dollars are available through the grant, but considering thousands of departments may apply for thousands of dollars of grant money, it's not as much money available as it seems.
However, installing exhaust capture systems is listed as "high priority," Holzopfel said. The systems capture exhaust out of the pipe so it isn't released into the fire station.
When these engines start up fumes come out, they gather up in the air, then they come down, and settle in everything, especially the firefighter's gear. That's what causes cancer to firefighters, specifically testicular cancer from pants left on the ground. He said when those diesel fumes settle in the gear left out and firefighters wear it, their bodies absorb those fumes. Holzopfel said the International Association of Firefighters has proven those carcinogens are not only absorbed by the gear, but have been found in fire station beds, workout equipment and even the refrigerator.
Holzopfel said South Carolina doesn't have many of the filtering systems compared to other states. The exhaust capture systems catch the cancer-causing diesel fumes as they leave the engine, eliminating deadly fumes from the bay. They work by attaching a ventilation tube to the engine's exhaust pipe either on the top of back of the truck. He said the tube automatically pulls away as the engine leaves, but must be manually re-attached when it returns.
Holzopfel said firefighters are aware of the risk and adhere to new standards to do what they can now to decrease their chances of cancer.
"We wash our gear periodically, we have two sets of gear - these are all standards," Holzopfel explained. "We have two sets of gear, that allow firefighters to get out of the carcinogens. These exhaust captures are just another system in that process to reduce cancer. Without the presumptive legislation to cover our firefighters after they get cancer through workman's comp, we must take every step to reduce cancer and keep the firefighter's safe on the job."
Not only do the diesel fumes pose a risk to firefighters, but also the public. Fire stations are used as polling stations and field trips.
When asked why the systems weren't installed in fire stations already, Holzopfel said it's because the knowledge wasn't there when many stations were built.
"Diesel exhaust particulates causing cancer was not as prevalent 20, 30 years ago as it is now," Holzopfel said. "The Organization of the International Association of Firefighters and many other organizations have put up the money and the funding to prove these carcinogens are occupationally causing cancer to our firefighters."
The systems also don't have to be installed by law; they are only a National Firefighters Protection Association standard. Holzopfel explained while they should be installed in every station because of the proven cancer-causing fumes, they're expensive and now required.
Holzopfel said off the top of his head, he can think of five Myrtle Beach firefighters, current or retired, who have had or are currently fighting cancer.
The AFG Grant was created after September 11, 2001. Holzopfel said many things were created to the benefit of firefighters after 9/11. However, he said the more time passes, fewer benefits become available to firefighters.