HANOVER, Va. (WRIC) — Firefighters in Hanover County are battling a threat beyond the fire line: Cancer.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, firefighters are more likely to be diagnosed with the disease. They’re also more susceptible to certain kinds of cancer.
“One in three firefighters in the course of a 30-year career will develop some form of cancer,” Hanover Battalion Chief of Training Mike Watkins explained.
It happened to the department’s beloved Assistant Chief Henri Moore. He passed away last month from an aggressive form of cancer. Moore was 47-years-old.
“We all of a sudden took a second look at ourselves and said what are we doing?” Watkins said. “His words to us were, ‘love each other and take care of each other,’ and we’re going to do that.”
So, firefighters are now changing the way they clean up after a fire.
That soot you see on firefighters when they come out of a blaze contains carcinogens; by-products of the plastics and petroleum-based products burning inside buildings.
Once the flames are out, firefighters now hose each other down and brush each other off to get rid of the obvious contaminants.
They keep their masks on throughout the process to avoid breathing in anything that can hurt them.
The county also purchased decontamination kits for every fire truck. The kits are simple five gallon blue buckets equipped with things like baby wipes. Firefighters use those to rub down their faces and necks once their equipment comes off.
There are trash bags in the kit as well to store firefighters gear until it can be cleaned. All the new procedures are designed to save their lives.
“In the long run, it’s to benefit us,” firefighter Chad Hulsey said.
The 28-year-old admits that even though the new practices may soften the tough image of firefighters, they could also save lives.
“Nobody really beats cancer from their muscles or from being tough, you know, it’s a long, painful road and it’s one I don’t think anyone really wants to go down,” Hulsey said. “So doing anything that we can to prevent to having to go down that road, I think is well worth it.”
This is a culture change for firefighters. It used to be the dirtier your gear when you came out of a fire, the tougher you were. But now it’s all about getting clean and avoiding potential toxins.
While the practice is new for Hanover firefighters, there are other departments in our area who have already implemented similar decontamination plans.
All Hanover firefighters will be trained on the new decontamination process by the end of this week.