Firefighters hoping for more protective gear amidst cancer concerns

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- The International Association of Firefighters has reported that cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters, and is hoping to incorporate particulate hoods for an extra layer of protection.

"The plastics, things that houses are being made with now are not natural materials and that's our biggest problem. People don't realize all the particulates in the air that are getting in, especially your neck and places you sweat are absorbing these chemicals, which are actually causing these problems," said Allen Williford, a firefighter with Eastern Wake Fire and Rescue in Knightdale.

"Traditionally, firefighters looked at the dirtier the gear, the more seasoned you are, the more experienced are, and it's more of a badge of honor. But now with those images and the cancer rates we're seeing with firefighters, maybe that's the wrong way to look at it," explained Bryan Ormond at NC State Textile Protection and Comfort Center.

In conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security and LION First Responder PPE, researchers at NC State were able to highlight the elevated cancer risks firefighters face, while working to create new equipment to protect them.

"We've been concerned for a long time about bringing firefighters home at the end of the day. Making sure that when they go to a fire call or whatever it is, they come home. Now we've shifted that focus how do we bring them home at the end of their careers," Ormond said.

The protective hoods protect the neck and ears and go under a firefighter's helmet. "It's actually the off-product of fire that's getting us. It's even the chemicals we deal with on a daily basis," said Williford.

Ormond said they are also working on enhancing cleaning procedures of uniforms.

North Carolina covers four types of cancers for firefighter service benefits: esophageal, intestinal, testicular, and mesothelioma. Williford added they are working with lawmakers to try and added five more cancers to that list.

Some of the newer protective gear is costly, with Williford saying the particulate hoods range from $80-$150, about two to three times more than standard gear.

That's why they're trying to raise money to make sure all firefighters, including volunteers, have access to that protection.

In February, up to 30 breweries will participate in a brew-off at Tobacco Road Sports Cafe and Brewery in Raleigh with the proceeds going towards that goal.

"A lot of the larger stations have it in their budget to get better gear. But the volunteers and community places don't have that money. It costs over $8,000 to outfit a firefighter, so anything we can do to help is what we're doing," said Amy Otterson, the Events Coordinator with Love is Bald, the organization holding the event.

If you're interested in purchasing tickets to the charity brew-off, click here.
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