August 17, 2018 10:26:14 AM
Zack Plair - [email protected]
For firefighters, certain hazards of their jobs are apparent.
Running into a burning house to rescue someone trapped inside tends to be the most prevalent example etched in general public perception.
But Columbus Fire and Rescue has been trying for years to reduce a hidden danger that threatens firefighters daily, even when they are sitting, eating or sleeping in the fire station. Soon, CFR will have the tools in place to better combat it.
The Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, administered through the Department of Homeland Security, has awarded CFR $171,410 in grant funds to purchase exhaust systems to be mounted at each of the city's five fire stations. The system, according to Assistant Fire Chief Duane Hughes, can be connected to the exhaust pipe of any diesel-engine CFR vehicle to filter out carcinogens they would otherwise release from the air.
Hughes, along with CFR Chief Martin Andrews, said the system will help reduce the risk of firefighters contracting certain types of cancer -- specifically lung and skin cancers -- from long-term exposure to the carcinogens.
"We've had three firefighters just since I've been here who have taken medical retirement because of lung injuries," said Hughes, who joined CFR 24 years ago. "Now we don't know for sure what exactly caused that, but we do know that cancer is creeping up as a leading cause of death in firefighters nationwide."
Exhaust from diesel trucks parked or idling in the engine bays can build up and actually spread throughout a fire station, Hughes said, carrying the carcinogens with it. The chemicals also can spread to uniforms and turnout gear firefighters wear to calls.
CFR's fleet includes 23 vehicles, Hughes said, and 12 run on diesel.
Beyond the impact on firefighters directly, Hughes noted fire stations serve often as emergency shelters for the public centers for community events. Therefore, the mounted exhaust systems at each station will protect citizens, as well.
"Some of our fire stations serve as polling places for elections, for example," Hughes said. "So this system is going to have a great impact."
Andrews, who joined the fire department 31 years ago, became chief in 2014.
"When I started, we ate in the engine room and took our gear to store in the sleeping area," Andrews said.
He said CFR has worked diligently for years to reduce the cancer risk at fire stations, storing turnout gear and other equipment away from the fire engines and equipping firefighters with helmets that better guard against carcinogen intake on fire calls.
Since 2013, CFR also has purchased four exhaust systems for individual trucks, at a cost Andrews estimated at roughly $10,000 per unit. But both Andrews and Hughes said the individual systems weren't as effective and had higher maintenance costs. Plus, trying to equip all the diesel-engine vehicles with those units would be costly since the AFG grant wouldn't cover those.
"With this (system), it's not truck-specific," Hughes said. "When we get a new truck, we can just hook it up to this."
Mayor Robert Smith, along with several city councilmen, joined Andrews and his firefighters for a press conference Thursday morning at Fire Station 1 to officially announce two AFG grants -- one for the exhaust system and another $318,183 award toward the purchase of a new pumper truck that will replace an older one in the fleet.
Both grants require a 10-percent match from the city, which will total about $49,000.
Smith applauded CFR leadership for applying for the exhaust system grant, noting it was a process that first came with several rejections.
"This is the first time we've gotten this grant, even though the Fire and Rescue has applied for it for several years," Smith said. "My hat is off to the chief and his department for being persistent and continuing to apply year after year.
"The mayor and city council want to do whatever is necessary to make sure we have first-class facilities, equipment and supplies for all of our departments," he later added.
Andrews said both the fire truck and exhaust system must complete a bidding process, and the grant allows a year from award acceptance for CFR to have the funded equipment in place.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.