ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. —Protecting the public, it’s what firefighters are good at and trained to do. But the men and women at St. Petersburg Fire Rescue are now finding ways to better protect themselves from cancer.
“It’s a little bit of a better fit, elastic-wise, around the interface with the mask,” said training Lt. Rob Neuberger, as he shows off the new NFPA-certified particulate hoods. They can catch particles as small as a molecule.
They are now using these types of hoods, along with deep cleaning and washing down gear after each fire so they can cut down on the amount of contaminants firefighters are inhaling during the day.
"We’re all creatures of habit,” said Ian Womack, the Division Chief for St. Pete Fire Rescue.
But forming this new habit could help save the lives of firefighters in the future.
"Cancer and exposure to the byproducts of fire wasn’t even part of the conversation 20 years ago,” said Womack.
He was just 30 years old when he began his fight against thyroid cancer, quickly spreading into his neck and chest.
"I grew up in the fire service where the culture was dirty gear was a badge of honor. So we were proud of how messy our gear would get,” he said.
Experts in the field believe breathing in the carcinogens from the smoke and ash are to blame.
"One is too many, but we’ve got over 15 now in our department with head and neck,” said Neuberger.
It’s why they’ve come up with a new way of taking their gear off after battling flames. They now grab the particulate hood and mask together from under their chin and pull up.
"All as one unit and remove it behind their head that way the contaminants of particles are behind their face and they’re not breathing them into the respiratory tract,” Neuberger said.
They put on a fresh hood after every fire. Plus they now must wash down their gear and store it in large bags so it doesn’t get contaminated.
"We’re good about purchasing the best care possible to protect us from burns, but we’re finding out that what we can’t see is as much or more of a threat to us,” said Womack.