MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Firefighters help save people's lives every day, and now the Myrtle Beach Fire Department is taking steps to better protect the lives of their very own.
"To dedicate your life to helping others, you shouldn't have to worry about cancer 20 to 30 years down the road," MBFD Deputy Chief Tom Gwyer said.
Firefighters can be exposed to cancer-causing contaminants from fires
"Basically they refer to it as a carcinogen cocktail that can really tear up your organs, your cells, and even your DNA," Gwyer said. "So many carcinogens have been absorbed in your turnout gear, we want to take steps to minimize our exposure to our people."
A study done by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found firefighters are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer.
"One that still works here was diagnosed with thyroid cancer a few years ago," Gwyer said. "Another one when he was on the job was diagnosed with bladder cancer. It's something that really hits close to home."
Gwyer said both firefighters are OK now.
The department is getting ready to launch several initiatives to lessen exposure to those potentially-damaging contaminants. The battalion chief and safety officer will both have kits on the scenes of major fires to do that.
The kits will include wipes for firefighters to use on the areas where their skin touches contaminated fabric, such as the wrists and neck.
"It's no longer having to wait until you get back to the firehouse to wash your hands or take a shower. Immediately you come out of a fire, even if it's a car fire or a brush fire, your hands are dirty or your neck, you take those baby wipes and you wipe them off," Gwyer said.
Spare hoods will be in the kits as well.
"Anything that gets saturated through the hood, it gets absorbed into your pores here," Gwyer said.
Right now, firefighters in Myrtle Beach are supposed to wash their gear after every major fire or every six months, but soon, the safety officer on scene will decide if their gear needs to be collected to get cleaned.
Firefighters will hose each other down and then the gear will be put into garbage bags included in the kits and placed into a compartment, so it's not inside the truck with the firefighters.
"If we take their gear away from them and give them replacement gear and wash that gear, then we're doing a little bit or doing our part to hopefully kind of combat the cancer problem in the fire service today," Gwyer said.
Every five years the department gets new gear and some of the gear that was still good has been stockpiled for years. The only expenses are the items in the kits, including spare hoods, wipes and drum liners.
"We're doing all this for 700 bucks or so," Gwyer said. "It's a drop in the bucket as far was what it can prevent down the road."
Gwyer said these initiatives signify a cultural shift in firefighting.
"Twenty years ago it was about being a salty firefighter where your gear is nasty and whoever was the dirtiest did the most work," he said. "Now it's changing that thought process where yea you got dirty and you were in a fire, but now we're going to clean it."
The new policy should go into effect within the next couple of weeks.
"We're not going to know for years whether this stuff is helping or not, but hopefully it's going to be better for the people that come after us down the road," Gwyer said. "We can make this profession a little safer for them."
The option to get spare gear or use items in the kits will still be available at all times even for smaller fires when the battalion chief and safety officer aren't on scene, he said.
The department has also put in a request for a grant to get an exhaust capture system for five of the stations. Gwyer said it hasn't been awarded yet.