Philly firehouse gets specialized washing machines to decontaminate bunker gear

Steve Tawa
December 12, 2018 - 3:53 pm

Steve Tawa/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) -- A South Philadelphia firehouse is among the first to get a new washing machine and dryer for their gear. The heavy-duty commercial grade 'extractors' get rid of harmful carcinogens that firefighters encounter in the line of duty.

At Engine 53 at 4th Street and Snyder Avenue, Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel says it's sobering to think about the cancer death rate among firefighters, and that's why they're pushing protocols to better decontaminate bunker gear.

“Basically the specialized coat and pants that people see when we go into fires,” he said.

Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel visits Engine 53 in South Philadelphia.
Steve Tawa/KYW Newsradio

Anywhere from eight to ten times a day in Philadelphia, firefighters are going into structural fires; they're exposed to concentrations of materials in solid, liquid and gaseous forms.

“The worst route of exposure to that is inhalation,” Thiel said. “That's why we wear self-contained breathing apparatus.”

For generations of firefighters, their filthy, soot-stained uniforms were a badge of honor.

"We have this expression - 'you're salty' - which is essentially your gear is impregnated with that grime,” he said.

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But Thiel says it's "really a toxic brew." Fire science is showing that their turnout gear passes along contaminants to a firefighter's skin. He says laundering personal protective equipment is essential to prevent the introduction of toxins in their bodies.

“A higher frequency of laundering, or advanced cleaning, will be efficacious for helping to reduce contamination and reduce our fighters' exposure to some of these carcinogens,” he explains.

Chief Al Tropiano, assigned to the Fire Academy and currently detailed to the PFD's Safety Office, notes studies that show firefighters are 14 percent more likely than the general U.S. population to die of cancer.

“Anything that you can do to remove these carcinogens, you go ahead and do it,” he said.

The Philadelphia Fire Department has been sending 250-sets of bunker gear out a month for professional cleaning, inspection and repair. Thiel says he wants to bring high-powered extractors - special washing machines and dryers - into more firehouses each year, for advanced cleaning.

“What we may do initially with our extractors is maybe focusing on protective hoods and gloves that firefighters wear, because they get contaminated at a higher rate,” Thiel said.

Each unit is $40,000, but installation, including electrical and plumbing, can run anywhere from $75,000 to $175,000. Each washer holds seven to eight complete sets of gear.