Firefighting gear: What you don’t know could kill you -- eventually


Published on February 21, 2017

Daniel Cheeseman and Hilliard Ewing with Michelle Wamboldt owner of Atlantic Bunker Gear Services in Hebbville during the association’s Firefighter Symposium 2017 at COGS on Feb. 19.

©Lawrence Powell

LAWRENCETOWN , N.S. - What you don’t know about bunker gear could kill you – eventually.

In an eye-opener presentation in Lawrencetown Jan. 19, Michelle Wamboldt of Atlantic Bunker Gear Services in Hebbville showed firefighters what bunker gear can look like after a fire and explained that the dozens of carcinogens embedded in the various layers of the protective clothing’s fabric can be absorbed through the skin and into the body.

The higher the temperature, the faster the absorption.

She was one of many experts who spoke at the Annapolis County Fire Service Association’s Firefighter Symposium 2017 at the Centre of Geographic Sciences on the weekend. She owns the bunker gear company that cleans the clothing for fire departments from across the Atlantic Provinces.

“Generally the contaminants that come from any type of a fire are pretty nasty toxins,” Wambolt said. “Those toxins and contaminants stay on the bunker gear, and over time firefighters who are exposed to this -- it can be absorbed in through their skin and most of these toxins are carcinogenic. So it’s a health issue for firefighters. Firefighters have a much higher incidence of cancer than the general population.”

It's a health issue for firefighters. Firefighters have a much higher incidence of cancer than the general population. Michelle Wamboldt

White Paper

Wamboldt prefaced her talk with a quote from a 2013 white paper on cancer in the fire service titled ‘Taking Action Against Cancer in the Fire Industry’ that said studies have shown high rates of multiple types of cancers in firefighters.

She said bunker gear should be rinsed off and hung to dry after every fire, but it also needs an in depth cleaning and inspection once a year – and repairs or replacement when inspections fail.

Wamboldt used real bunker gear to demonstrate how heat can affect the three layers of material, including an inner, waterproof material.

But dirty turnout gear can also be dangerous in other ways depending on the circumstances: it might conduct electricity; it may become flammable; it may absorb, rather than reflect heat; reflective trim can be less visible; and dirt can weaken the fabric.

And if that’s not enough, the fabric can be adversely affected by sunlight and florescent light. Ultra violet rays are bad for gear and storing it wet can lead to mildew which can break down materials.

Fire departments can clean their own turnout gear using a front-load washer and special detergent, Wamboldt said. But the gear should still be sent away once a year.

Daniel Cheeseman with the Annapolis County Fire Service Association and Michelle Wamboldt owner of Atlantic Bunker Gear Services in Hebbville during the association’s Firefighter Symposium 2017 at COGS on Feb. 19. Wamboldt made a presentation on the dangers of contaminated bunker gear and the need for cleaning and repair.

©Lawrence Powell

Carcinogens

One slide shown by Wamboldt during the presentation listed 38 chemicals found at a typical fire scene that can be embedded in bunker gear – including benzene, octane, PCBs, asbestos, creosote, pesticides, insecticides, and numerous others. Wamboldt said 90 per cent of the chemicals listed are cancer-causing.

“For every five degrees increase in temperature, there’s a 400 per cent increase in skin absorption. So those toxins that are on flash hoods, the garment, they’re being absorbed into the skin,” she said. “The next time you put it on, unless you’ve washed it, they’re still on there and over time this is an accumulative effect.”

Turnout gear can even be embedded with infectious diseases.

And if the moisture barrier is not working properly, firefighters can suffer steam burns.

Cleaning bunker gear is such a serious business that Wamboldts’ staff wears protective clothing when they handle it. They clean bunker gear coats and pants, plus helmets, boots, gloves, and flash hoods.

Her company is trained and certified to the NFPA 1851 standard and must be recertified each year. The National Fire Protection Association is an American trade association that sets the standards for fire services in Canada and the United States. The NFPA standard is to replace bunker gear every 10 years.

But with the cost of bunker gear ranging from about $1,800 to $4,000 a pair, that’s not feasible for most departments, and the cost of professional cleaning each year can also be prohibitive.

Hilliard Ewing with the Annapolis County Fire Service Association presents Michelle Wamboldt from Atlantic Bunker Gear Services with a certificate from the association. She spoke at the Annapolis County Fire Service Association’s Firefighter Symposium 2017 at COGS on Feb. 19.

©Lawrence Powell

Volunteers

“These are volunteer firefighters. These people are doing a service to their community, so they should be given the proper gear, maintained properly – just like their fire trucks are inspected, they’re cleaned, they’re properly maintained,” Wamboldt said. “This is the gear that saves their lives and keeps them healthy so it should be properly maintained as well.”

“Nobody does what they should be doing,” said Daniel Cheeseman with the Annapolis County Fire Service Association. He was referring to cleaning gear and showering once firefighters return to the fire hall after a call. He’s a firefighter in Bridgetown. “A lot of it is budget constraints. A lot of us don’t have showers in our stations that can do it.”

“I don’t think carcinogens is something in a lot of the volunteer world that people take seriously,” said Mike Lockett with the Lawrencetown fire department. “There’s not a whole lot of education as far as when you get trained to be a firefighter.”

Many fire departments do wash their own gear and send it away for certified cleaning and repair.

But he said it’s just not something that is talked about, and when you talk about laundering gear, it’s considered another budget constraint. He said sometimes it’s put off and sometimes it’s looked down upon. He said some departments may not even know that it should be done or that such a service is even available.

 

Municipal Responsibility

“At the end of the day, fire service is a municipal responsibility, it’s not a provincial responsibility,” said Lockett. “We fall under the Municipal Government Act and until municipal governments actually take a serious look at what their responsibilities are and what they should be doing for the fire service, you’re going to have a lot of people just simply doing it and running their operation as they see fit and doing what they can from the information that they know. Doing the best that they can but they can’t always do what they need to do because money is a player here. A huge factor.”