Fire gear ‘washer’ cuts risk for firefighters

Kansas Fire Marshal Doug Jorgensen (foreground) demonstrates the new exterior extractor machine that can “wash away” dangerous chemical and biohazards during a visit to Florence in February. Observing the process are Kevin Doel, public information manager for Jorgensen’s office, and Mark Slater, Florence fire chief.
Kansas Fire Marshal Doug Jorgensen (foreground) demonstrates the new exterior extractor machine that can “wash away” dangerous chemical and biohazards during a visit to Florence in February. Observing the process are Kevin Doel, public information manager for Jorgensen’s office, and Mark Slater, Florence fire chief.
Kansas Fire Marshal Doug Jorgensen of Topeka was in Florence recently to witness the unveiling of a new extractor machine able to “wash away” dangerous chemicals and biohazards from protective gear.

“A number of studies have recently come out, and it seems there’s an increase in the rates of cancer in the fire service,” Jorgensen said.

Contributing to these find­­ings, he said, are a lot of gases and particles that a fire puts off.

“Whether it’s from the car­pet or newer construction used in furniture, a lot more of those things are petroleum-based and will put off a lot of toxic gas and fumes,” he said.

Reducing exposure

With these manufactured materials in furniture, carpet and other items, Jorgensen said when fire­­­fighters battle a structure fire they are being exposed to these particles.

As these particles and chemicals attach to the gear, what was protection for the firefighter gradually loses its effectiveness and puts these men and women at risk, said Kevin Doel, public information manager at the Kansas Fire Marshal’s office.

“So, every time firefighters put bunker gear on, they are being re-exposed to those same biohazards,” he said.

With the addition of these new extractors, Jorgensen said the hope is that firefighters clean their bunker gear on a regular basis.

First year grant

Jorgensen said the Office of the State Fire Marshal received a $200,000 grant from the Kansas State Fire Fighters Association Inc. to buy the washer-extractor machines.

This new Kansas Firefighter Recruitment and Safety grant program, Jorgensen said, also will cover the cost of safety gear for new firefighters.

In addition, physical examinations for firefighters whose physicals are not covered by their departments will be paid through the grant program, he said.

“We asked the state legislature last year for money to buy these needed (extractor) machines,” Jorgensen said.

The Legislature also made it possible for the OSFM to help the volunteer fire departments buy bunker gear both for retention and recruitment and with physicals, he said.

“(The Legislature) agreed, and gave us $200,000 for the program this year,” he said. “We had over $800,000 in requests, and even some of those were cut in half so more departments could make use of these first grant funds.”

Jorgensen said the OSFM asked that funding continue for the next two fiscal years.

Currently, the Legislature is in session, and the second year’s grant money is in the fire marshal’s budget.

“Hopefully, when the session is over, we can send out announcements to the departments, and then at the beginning of the new fiscal year on July 1, we can start accepting applications,” he said.

Jorgensen said the program approved by the Legislature and governor is aimed at helping volunteer and part-time fire departments with recruitment.

The grant program is administered by the OSFM.

Extractor

“This was the first year of the grant, and we bought five (extractors) for $50,000,” Jorgenson said.

Six applications were received, he said, but one of the departments was close to another one that already sent in an application.

Joining Florence as a recipient are Ellinwood, Well­ing­ton, Herington and Waterville.

A one-year contract was added by the OSFM on the detergent an automatic dispenser.

“The guys won’t have to worry about whether they are putting in enough detergent or too much,” he said.

Mark Slater, Florence fire chief, said the machines are pre-programmed and password protected. The machines have the ability to spin at 400 Gs.

“A spin of 400 Gs would be hard on bunker gear, so all machines are programmed at 100 Gs,” Jorgensen said.

Because the machines spin at such rapid acceleration, Doel said, the installation is done by anchoring the machine to a thick, reinforced concrete foundation, which absorbs the vibrations without causing damage to the machine or walls.

The detergent used in the machines is a combination of two different (enzyme) chemicals that pull the particles off.

“It does a better job on the bunk­er gear,” he said.

Regarding the life of an extractor-washer, Slater said it would depend on the number of fires, but his estimate was eight to 10 years.

“Bunker gear weighs about 55 to 60 pounds,” he said, “and the recommended amount of gear washed at one time is between four and six.”

Jorgensen said they paid extra money for the bigger extractors, but with fire departments traveling anywhere from 10 to 20 miles to use the machine, most wouldn’t want to just wash one or two sets at a time.

Slater said it takes about 45 minutes to an hour to wash.

“In about 11⁄2 hours five complete sets are done,” he said.

Hillsboro Fire Chief Ben Steketee said his department plans to take advantage of the new extractor, along with other departments in close proximity to Florence.