LINE OF DUTY FIREFIGHTERS AND CANCER
‘Clean’ practices gaining ground among fire crews
Departments trying to change rugged culture to protect long-term health
When a massive, five-alarm fire engulfed an apartment complex in Prospect Heights in July, swallowing swaths of synthetic materials in its wake, fire Chief Drew Smith said he was determined to keep his crew safe.
“There are no timeouts in firefighting like there are in sports, when you can blow the whistle during a game. So you have to make these decisions in a matter of seconds,” Smith recalled recently.
“We were not making any progress, even though we kept adding more resources, so at the one-hour point, I knew we had to pull everyone out, and I sounded the air-horn signal.”
The blaze left 500 residents homeless and caused an estimated $10 million in damage, as well as minor injuries to a firefighter and two residents. Investigators ruled it an accidental fire started by an 11-year-old with a lighter.
What remains unknown is how many of the 200 firefighters at the scene strictly followed cancer prevention and safety protocols, which advise them to wear air masks, even after a fire is extinguished, and to follow a decontamination regimen to rid their bodies and gear of toxins.