(TNS) — Bolivar Fire Chief Shawn Lynch estimates that the vast majority of firefighters in Tuscarawas County are wearing turnout gear that does not meet current safety standards.
"The technology of turnout gear is moving faster than budgets can allow," he said. "To put a firefighter in complete turnout gear costs $4,000, and it's only good for 10 years. Budgets cannot keep up with that."
Protecting firefighters from hazardous chemicals when they enter a burning building is something that is a high priority for all area departments.
"We try to teach the new guys that going into a structure fire, with modern furniture, is like going into a hazmat event," Lynch said. "Everything is made of plastic and it gives off gases if it's burning. When it comes onto the skin, it seeps in. A fire event today won't give you cancer, but it may show up in 20 years."
After firefighters finish their work at the scene, their turnout gear is put in the back of the truck, he said. "The guys go straight into the shower and take the hottest shower possible to open up their pores."
Even if they wear their gear properly, they may get good and sweaty days later as the toxins come out of their skin, he said.
Firefighters today are much more aware of the risks than they were in the past.
"When I first joined the fire department, that was not heard of," said Rick Poland, chief of the Rush Township Volunteer Fire Department. Poland, who became a firefighter in 1971, said he has been in house fires without a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). That equipment came into use in the mid-1970s.
Now, his department stresses the use of proper equipment to new volunteers. "We very much stress it," he said.
By the 1980s, the push was on to wear breathing protection on structure fires, said Newcomerstown Fire Chief Robert McGarry. "Getting the older guys to buy into it was kind of rough at first. Now it's really not even thought of. Everyone wears it."
Echoing the comments of Lynch, McGarry said, "With the material that burns in newer homes, the material is more toxic than it's ever been. You inhale the smoke over time, and it's going to cause some health issues."
When the New Philadelphia Fire Department built its new fire station, it included a separate area to store turnout gear. In the old station, the gear had been hanging on the walls next to the fire trucks, and the concern was that diesel exhaust from the trucks would get on the gear.
"The things done in New Philadelphia to keep it segregated is very intelligent," Lynch said.
But it's a luxury not all departments can afford.
Bolivar stores its turnout gear in the same area where the trucks are. "The building was built in 1980," he said. "When the trucks start, the diesel exhaust is in the area and it collects on the gear. We wash the gear frequently to minimize that."
In Newcomerstown, the gear is hanging in lockers between the trucks.
"It's something we have to contend with," McGarry said. "We make everyone wash their turnout gear. We have a special machine that pulls most of it out, but it's not 100 percent."
Firefighters wash the gear about once a week, and they try not to take the gear home, he said.
In Rush Township, "our main concern is for the firefighters," Poland said. "We try to clean them off the best we can when they come out."
Like Bolivar and Newcomerstown, Rush Township is not able to keep its turnout gear separate from the fire trucks, Poland said. "We're still a volunteer department."
Lynch noted that the Tuscarawas County Firefighters Association recently had Mark Resanovich, a retired firefighter from Green, Ohio, come to speak. Resanovich is a cancer survivor who goes around the country speaking about the hazards that firefighters can face.
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