Silent Killer: Spotlight On Firefighter Gear Amid Health Concerns

Original Story via CBSMiami.com Michele Gillen

MIAMI (CBSMiami) — It’s a tough anniversary for a family to mark. It’s two years since the passing of Miami-Dade Fire Captain Rafael Herrero. His journey and battle with cancer, lymphoma, the first in a series of cases that triggered a CBS4 investigation, The Silent Killer.

“The rate of cancer we are seeing in our fire department is huge and that made us start looking at what could it be,” says Captain Shane Anderson.

Researchers said firefighters across South Florida are in a battle against cancer, including alarming numbers of thyroid, colon and brain cancer. Now all eyes are turning to the firefighters’ personal protective gear. In the spotlight is how to improve it, clean it and store it.

CBS4 Chief Investigator Michele Gillen joined Captain Anderson in a walk through of the Miami-Dade logistics headquarters where new gear is stored in a revamped set up that could prove to be critical. Anderson described the difference as a “huge change.”

“We found that we were storing the gear wrong. Most everybody in the country was but what we found out is that two things were a big factor. The way this stuff is made. The seams that are in it. The glues that are used off gas. You want to protect the firefighter with gear that is going to help them in a dangerous environment. But you also want to make sure that we are storing it correctly so that the chemicals that are used don’t hurt them down the road as well, ” said Anderson.

He showed Gillen how stored gear is now removed from all plastic packaging and boxing and shaded from artificial light.

“We found out is that ultra violet light is one of the worst things for firefighter gear. So you deal with two things,” he added.

Ultimately responsible for armoring up the county’s firefighters is Chief Foy Jenkins. He is ever mindful that South Florida firefighters have only one set of personal protection gear a piece. If fires are back to back there may not be enough time to fully decontaminate the gear.

Foy is crunching numbers to see if back up gear per firefighter can be purchased in the future.

Gillen asked, “What does that responsibility feel like?”

Jenkins responded, “It’s a burden. Because of the economic downturn, we have been through…when money is limited it makes some of the decisions very difficult,and especially knowing that in your heart,maybe not scientifically, but in your heart, that some simple changes can make some different outcomes.”

The spotlight is now shifting to the personal protective hood, a potential catch-all for contaminants and carcinogens. Up until CBS4’s report, the firefighters were issued only one. Now a second one will be available to them.

“If they have a hood, they can come to support and they can get a new one. So they have two now,” said Anderson.

Reminders are everywhere that clean gear is the new normal.

For Miami Dade Firefighters, it is a path that leads to Minerva, one of the nations leading specialists in cleaning and repairing bunker gear which is a precise practice. At Minerva, business is brisk gear to be cleaned arriving in record numbers from across South Florida.

“We are doing better than ever in our history of the department with compliance and that is a direct impact of some of the things that you and others in your industry have done as far as educating our people,” said Jenkins.

Fading is the culture of a soot-laden uniform being a badge of honor.

“The guys wanted to look veteran.I understand that . I was one of those guys,”said Jenkins.

“I think there has definitely been a shift. I don’t think everybody buys into it yet…Yes I do believe there has been a shift in the dynamics of what we are talking about,” shared Keith Tyson who is a retired Miami Dade firefighter and cancer survivor. He is largely credited with bringing awareness to the risk of cancer in firehouse and after the firehouse.

Why is he so committed to it?

“I don’t want anybody to go through what I have been through, what my brothers and sisters are going through,” he shared with Gillen.”To refer three or four members a week to a hospital so they can get a second opinion.”

Tyson recently returned from Boston where firefighters are adding up their cancer casualties.

“The bad news…some of the numbers were every three weeks a member was being diagnosed with some sort of severe type of cancer. The good news is they reached out to us,” Tyson said. “We developed a 90 minute program being taught to over 1,400 members of their department over the next two months and that is huge!”

They are lessons and legacies keeping alive the memory and mission of brothers and sisters not forgotten.

It appears those beloved lives were not lost in vain. Their stories helped to spearhead efforts that are resulting in more than $900 thousand being funneled by the state for pioneering research into links between firefighting and cancer. University of Miami researchers will be helming the project as firefighters from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties are in the spotlight.