EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Firefighters are often exposed to carcinogens on the job, making decontamination measures crucial in preventing occupational cancer.
Washing extractors in fire departments decontaminate their turnout gear after a fire, but the equipment is expensive to purchase and install; there are spatial constraints; and some of the machines vary in capacity and speed.
“Any fire we encounter in town has a high level of carcinogens, anything from soot to the products of combustion that collect in our gear, on ourselves,” Narragansett Fire Marshal Kevin Tuthill explained.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, firefighters have a 9% higher risk of developing cancer and 14% higher risk of dying from it.
“I think if you asked any firefighter, they would tell you they know someone who has been affected by cancer,” Narragansett Chief Scott Partington said.
12 News surveyed more than 35 fire departments in Rhode Island to find out who has washing extractors and dryers for turnout gear.
Who has them?
Some large cities, like Providence and Cranston, have equipped all of their stations with washers and dryers. Providence is currently investing $248,000 to upgrade their equipment after winning a federal grant that will cover 90% of the expense. The city will pay for the remaining 10%, according to a spokesperson for the department.
Other departments that have received federal grants to purchase equipment include Central Falls, Cranston, Little Compton, Narragansett, North Kingstown, Scituate (North Scituate district), Providence, and Woonsocket. Warwick used both grant and budget funding to purchase their machinery.
Many other municipalities used budget funding, including Barrington, Bristol, Charlestown, Coventry (Hopkins Hill), East Providence, Exeter (Volunteer Department No. 1), Johnston, North Providence, Scituate (Potterville), South Kingstown, and Warren.
East Greenwich, which owns one washing extractor, used a monetary donation to purchase the $5,000 machine in 2014. They are still working to purchase an extractor for their second station.
Glocester’s West Glocester district reported using a home washer and dryer with regular soap.
Some of the other departments that responded to 12 News said they use special cleaning services if they don’t have the machinery on hand. According South Kingstown’s fire chief, they are limited in which stations can have them installed because not all of them are connected to the municipal septic system which allows that kind of wastewater.
How much do they cost?
Twenty-five departments said they have washing extractors, but many of them share one machine between multiple stations, making the task of decontaminating numerous sets of gear time-consuming.
Narragansett’s fire department owns one commercial washing machine, programmed to a slower spin cycle specifically for turnout gear, which uses a specific cleaning solution.
According to Chief Scott Partington, it’s department policy to decontaminate gear out in the field, then put it through the extractor afterwards. That one machine can only comfortably wash one set of gear at a time and is shared between three stations.
“The policy would be that they would come here to the station, that company would effectively become out of service for a period of time while they wash their gear,” Partington said.
The department’s extractor cost $6,000 in 2015 and was purchased with a federal grant. They were just awarded more federal funding to install washers and dryers in all their stations, but the costs have increased over the years.
“We are pricing them out at about $10,000 per unit for the washing machines, and a similar $10,000 to $12,000 for the dryers,” Tuthill said.
Drying equipment can come in the form of portable hangers, which are less expensive, or drying cabinets, which have a higher price tag but can dry more sets of gear at a time. Narragansett currently has no specialized drying equipment, so one of the firefighters built a makeshift drying rack.
“It’s essentially just a blower that you could buy at just about any Home Depot and PVC piping,” Tuthill said.
The piping has holes drilled into it where the air is pushed out, taking six to eight hours to dry a full set completely.
When asked where those carcinogens go after they’re washed out of the gear, Tuthill said the water drains into the septic system and goes through treatment plants that eliminate the chemicals before it goes back into the water supply.
Jacqueline Gomersall contributed to this report.