Consolidated Fire District takes steps to reduce cancer in its employees
In the back of the Coyote Street fire station, behind the parked engines, sits the decontamination unit.
It’s a small, unfinished wooden building, resembling something that would rest in a home’s backyard for storage.
This building holds two stationary bicycles. It’s got temperature control. Step inside, close the door and it feels like a sauna.
“We really avoid using the ‘sauna’ word, because it’s not,” said Capt. Pat Sullivan with the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District.
“It’s not just one thing we’re doing,” Sullivan added. “It’s a change of environment. It’s a change of culture.”
The decontamination, or decon, unit helps remove toxins from firefighters. It’s one of several changes the fire district has implemented over the past several years in its attempt to reduce cancer among employees.
According to Sullivan, over 60 percent of firefighter deaths are cancer-related. Firefighters are 2½ times more likely to have cancer.
Those statistics have led Consolidated to make changes, the most recent of which is the decon unit.
“It reduces the amount of carcinogens they carry in their skin,” Fire Chief Jim Turner said.
Firefighters don’t only breathe in toxins. They also absorb them through their skin.
Sullivan and Turner said firefighters can smell smoke from a week-old fire when showering. The toxins linger in the body.
The decon unit helps remove them.
“It helps pull toxins out of our system,” Sullivan said.
A firefighter will shower before using the decon unit. He or she then pedals on a stationary bicycle — not hard exercise, but enough to raise a sweat. They use the unit for no more than 15 minutes and then shower again, Sullivan said.
The toxins removed, firefighters no longer smell of smoke a week after a fire.
“I absolutely believe it is going to be beneficial to the members of our department in the long run,” firefighter Corey Jacobsen said in an email. “The types of fires we are fighting today vary greatly from those of the past.”
The unit would have cost $8,000, except Consolidated bought theirs — a display model — for half that, Sullivan said. Installed about a month ago, the unit is open to all firefighters in the county’s Joint Operational Area, which includes Consolidated, Nevada City and Grass Valley fire departments.
“I never want to have a line-of-duty death in our department,” Sullivan said. “The human cost is what we want to avoid. This is an ongoing process.”
A video shows two fires, side by side, started simultaneously.
One fire burns furnishings made of cotton and wool. The other burns synthetic products.
The second blaze becomes a conflagration in under four minutes while the cotton and wool only start to catch flame.
That’s because the synthetic materials in the newer items changes how fires burn.
“Our fires are burning differently,” Sullivan said. “What we’re fighting is the products of combustion.”
The smoke from current fires contain polyhydrocarbons — chemicals considered to cause cancer.
Consolidated over the past decade has implemented changes to combat those agents.
The fire district has annual physicals. Turner said they’re voluntary, though he has 100 percent participation. Firefighters have blood taken and run on a treadmill. One physical found a cardiac issue with an employee, though it was unrelated to the job.
Sullivan said fitness reduces cancer risk. His station has a gym. Firefighters are allotted time each day to work out.
Fire engines are connected to an exhaust system that vents out smoke. Every firefighter has a second set of turnouts, protective gear, and they scrub down before returning to the station. The dirty turnouts are sealed in a bag, and an industrial washing machine decontaminates them after a fire, Sullivan said.
Firefighters also have cleansing wipes, used for areas of the body where toxins are known to enter.
The stereotype of the firefighter covered in soot is changing, Sullivan said. That soot can cause cancer. He wants those lives saved.
“I personally have 29 years left in my career before I can retire and I know the steps (the fire district) is taking will without a doubt benefit my family and I,” Jacobsen said. “I feel both grateful and fortunate that the department is willing to take these steps to help protect my health.”
Contact Staff Writer Alan Riquelmy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4239.
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The evacuation warning has been lifted, according to a CodeRed alert from the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office.