After the fire

WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – Almost two years ago in a special report, KSN looked into the increased cancer risk that firefighters face and the precautions they should be taking.

Now, a progress report—are Kansas fire departments putting all the recommendations into practice?

To find out, KSN spent an entire day with a Wichita fire crew, plus another day at a Sedgwick County fire station, to see if the departments have stepped up their cancer awareness.

Firefighters gear up away from where they eat and sleep. (KSN photo)
Firefighters gear up away from where they eat and sleep. (KSN photo)

Right away, it’s clear to see that both the city and county keep the firefighters’ gear away from where they eat and sleep so they don’t inhale any leftover smoke or soot.

“It was fairly commonplace in every fire house in the city to take our bunker pants in to where we sleep because you get a call, and you get dressed and go out the door.  Now we leave our gear out by the rigs we’re assigned to,” said Captain Kelly Ross, head of WFD’s Safety Training.

The newer county stations even have storage rooms with special ventilation built in, and both departments clean the gear more often with custom extractors and dryers.

“Our gear is washed two times a year mandatory and then after every big event, after every structure fire,” said Sedgwick County Fire Captain, Jeremy Whitney.

Easy precautions to follow at the station, but what about safeguards at the fire scene?

KSN found out firsthand, when Wichita crews responded to a small fire at a vacant house.

Checking for hot spots at a vacant home fire (KSN photo)
Checking for hot spots at a vacant home fire using full gear, including an air pac. (KSN photo)

While fighting the flames inside the home, fire crews wore their air pacs, self-contained breathing masks, to keep them from inhaling smoke or chemicals.  And even after the fire was out, most firefighters kept their air pacs on, while looking for hot spots that may have lingering, toxic fumes.

Yet some firefighters chose to ignore the precaution of wearing an air pac after the fire and instead counted on a fan to clear out the smoke.  They say the air pacs are hot, hard to breathe in, and limit their visibility.

None of the firefighters took another important precaution, cleaning their skin right after a fire before toxins can be absorbed.  Several said they had never used wet wipes or even knew if the engines carried them.

“It’s hit or miss.  We have them available, but I don’t know how many are actually using it,” said Darrel Kohls, WFD Medical Officer.

As cheap and easy as wet wipes are, Kohls admits it’s hard to change old habits.  Most firefighters prefer to come back to the station and take a shower, even if it’s hours later.

“I’ve been at a fire, a commercial building fire for six, seven, eight hours,” said Kelly Ross.

Some firefighters use wet wipes to clean up (KSN photo)
Some firefighters use wet wipes to clean up (KSN photo)

Sedgwick County is no better. When asked how many firefighters use wet wipes after a fire…

“A few,” said Capt. Whitney. “Not as many as we’d like.”

That’s why starting next year, he says it will be mandatory for county crews to clean their skin at the scene of a fire.

When it comes to smaller fire departments in Kansas, cancer prevention advocates say they seem more receptive to the recommended changes.  McPherson, with just 24 firefighters, has already put all the cancer precautions into policy.

“Unfortunately we’ve lost quite a few firemen to cancer so really it’s hit home, and we take it quite serious,” said T.J. Wyssmann, Division Chief of Operations.

KSN did not find any progress made in the push for a presumptive cancer law in Kansas.  While more than 30 states offer expanded coverage for firefighters diagnosed with cancer, our state legislature has yet to introduce such a bill for debate.

“It’s very controversial because it’s going to cost money to municipalities, counties and the state so it gets fought,” said Tim Millspaugh of the Kansas chapter of the Firefighters Cancer Support Network.

He says his group has not drafted a proposal because they’re still doing research on the issue and trying to build support.

“We’re going to have to have a collaboration of different groups, of firefighters in the state, to have a chance at this,” said Millspaugh.

The Firefighters Cancer Support Network hopes to have a presumptive cancer bill put together in time for the next legislative session.

Increase risks of cancer for firefighters compared to general population (Source: Firefighter Cancer Support Network)
Increase risks of cancer for firefighters compared to general population (Source: Firefighter Cancer Support Network)

In the meantime, firefighters like retired Sedgwick County Captain, Tom Strunk, who’s battling another tumor in his lung, try to convince the next generation to do everything they can to limit their cancer risk.

“It’s disproportionate. Firefighters get cancer more than any other occupation,” said Strunk.

He worries that if the crews don’t protect themselves now on the fire lines, they’ll face an even deadlier fight later.