ELLSWORTH — Firefighters face a lot of risks in their profession, but it turns out that the deadliest enemy for firefighters isn’t fire.
It’s cancer, which caused 61 percent of career firefighter deaths in the line of duty between January 2002 and March 2017, according to the International Association of Firefighters.
But the Ellsworth Fire Department has a new ally in fighting cancer-causing chemicals: a washing machine.
“Back in the day we used to just take a hose,” said Chief Richard Tupper, who has been with the department nearly 35 years, the last nine in the role of chief. “This is a much better opportunity to clean our turnout gear.”
Firefighters come into contact with a slew of carcinogens while they’re working, from the foams used to fight the fire to chemical-laden smoke from the burning of the synthetic and plastic materials in modern homes. A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of 30,000 firefighters from around the country employed between 1950 and 2009 found that the group was 9 percent more likely than the general population to be diagnosed with cancer, and 14 percent more likely to die from it. A separate study by Blue Hill’s own Susan Shaw found high levels of carcinogenic flame-retardant chemicals in the blood of firefighters after a fire event.
“We’re all smartened up to that,” said Tupper, referring to the overwhelming smoky scent of turnout gear in the station after a fire call. “That all that smell was killing us.”
Before the department’s new dedicated washer-dryer set was installed this winter, said Tupper, the department was using a standard front-loading machine, a better solution than a hose. But those machines aren’t specifically designed to remove carcinogens.
The new machines, which cost $20,000 (covered by an anonymous donor) use soap designed to clean turnout gear. The washing machine can accommodate three sets of turnout gear; a cycle takes roughly an hour, after which the gear is moved to an air dryer, where it’s hung. The drying time is roughly another hour and a half, said Tupper.
Properly and thoroughly cleaning the gear also will help it last longer, no small feat for a suit that costs between $2,500 and $3,000 per person, said Tupper.
Most firefighters have two sets of gear, all of which is customized and designed to last roughly a decade. With customized gear, said Tupper, “You don’t have a bare spot exposed,” where chemicals could be absorbed into the skin. “They measure them like a suit.”
It also helps to have well-fitting turnout gear for comfort reasons: lugging heavy equipment up and down ladders, dragging hoses.
“If it fits you properly, you’ll get a bit more productivity,” he said.
Maine passed a law a decade ago intended to protect firefighters diagnosed with cancer. It allows those diagnosed with certain types of cancers (kidney cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, colon cancer, leukemia, brain cancer, bladder cancer, multiple myeloma, prostate cancer, testicular cancer or breast cancer) to be eligible for workman’s compensation coverage. Firefighters must have been employed and regularly responding to calls for at least five years to qualify; retired firefighters are eligible if they are diagnosed within 10 years after retiring or before they turn 70, whichever comes first.
Many states have similar laws, although they don’t always work as intended. In 2018, the Houston Chronicle found that, in the six years prior, 91 percent of workman’s compensation claims filed by Texas firefighters for cancer had been denied.
Tupper said he pays for supplemental insurance coverage that will send him a check “up front” if he is ever diagnosed with cancer, “Because you’ll experience financial distress right out of the gate.”