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New state protocols aim to lower cancer risk in firefighters

New York State Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Services
A video released by the state showed how to clean a firefighter's gear at the scene to help remove hazards that have accumulated.

Albany is putting on a campaign to make sure firefighters in New York know how to protect themselves from the array of dangerous chemicals that can be found on their turnout gear at a fire.

The state is looking at cancer deaths among firefighters - higher than across the general population - and looking to lower that risk. The State Office of Fire Prevention and Control has developed a series of protocols and will be taking the message of the risks and how to ease those risks by cleaning the firefighter and the firefighter's gear at the scene.

Niagara Falls Fire Chief Joe Pedulla said that reflects a change in attitude by firefighters and fire leaders that even routine fires carry risks.

"We never washed our gear. We never washed our helmets. It was kind of like a badge of honor back then to have your gear used and your stuff dirty. That's changed over the last 10 years," Pedulla said. "I am very shocked at the older firefighters that are now washing their gear after fires, scrubbing their helmets where we never used to do that. The culture has changed."

He said basic safety issues like burning plastics are everywhere.

"Every fire we go to, even some of the open burning yard fires that we go to, have some sort of plastic carcinogens in them nowadays," Pedulla said. "I mean, toys are made out of plastic, vehicles made out of plastic, everything in the house - furniture, televisions - everything's made out of plastic nowadays and that's a big hindrance in our profession."

Pedulla said there is a problem in the new safety advice: the suggestions that firefighters' gear be taken at the fire scene to be cleaned at the firehouse. He said that requires lots more washing machines than exist now in his firehouses. It also creates the need for at least a second set of gear and possibly more, and the equipment worn by a modern firefighter can cost $3,000 each - something likely true for professional firefighters or the state's thousands of volunteers.

"We are not at a point yet to bag the gear up and bring it back, because that's going to present an issue of getting our firefighters back to the firehouse, without gear that they left with," he said. "So we do have some issues to cross with that, that we are working on. But, as of now, firefighters have a second set of gear back in their firehouse. So we're not at a point to bring that to the scene to replace the gear yet."

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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