Firefighter Andrew Johnstone shows the cramped space where Terrace crews would wash their gear at the fire hall. (Brittany Gervais/Terrace Standard)

Laundry an essential cycle to protect Terrace firefighters from cancer

Fire hall getting a minor renovation, new washer and dryer this fall

The sign of a responsible firefighter these days is when they’re dressed in squeaky clean gear, an essential part of safeguarding against cancerous chemicals after battling a fire.

But six months ago, when the Terrace Fire Department discovered their washer and dryer at the fire hall broke down, staff had to get creative with a temporary solution until new facilities could be installed this fall.

“In the interim, we were just taking our laundry to one of the dry cleaners in town and they do it for us,” says fire chief John Klie. “The problem with that is if we have a fire at night on the weekends, it’s very difficult to get that gear clean.”

The City of Terrace budgeted $50,000 for the fire department to purchase a new washer and dryer, and a minor renovation to increase the amount of space around the appliances.

Currently, the aging washer and dryer sits against the wall behind where the fire department parks their fire trucks, leaving a cramped area for staff to wash their gear. A few dents are visible on the old machine from when a fire truck was parked a bit too close.

“The idea was that whenever it came time to replace the washer and dryer, we would also try to bump out that back wall,” Klie says.

Larger new appliances would also save a significant amount of time for Terrace’s firefighters, giving them the ability to wash three or four sets of gear at once.

“Our washer is so small you can only do one set of gear at a time,” Klie says. “If you go to a fire and have 10 to 15 sets of gear, it would take four or five days to do.”

READ MORE: Why cancer is deadlier than fire for firefighters in B.C.

Laundry equipment essential for firefighters

The commonly considered risks of being a firefighter are easy to comprehend. TV shows, movies and books replete images of brave heroes running into fire-filled buildings, putting their lives on the line to rescue others.

What is less discussed is the fact that firefighters are exposed to incredibly toxic substances and chemicals at high heat in those situations.

“In the old days, they used to say, dirty gear was a sign of professional firefighter really doing his job. It was like a badge of honour. In today’s reality, dirty gear is actually a poor reflection of a firefighter or the fire hall now that we know the dangers,” Klie says.

“There’s a huge push for firefighters to look like they’ve got clean gear on all the time. We’ve made it a mandate that after every fire call, even if we go out to fire practice and do a live-fire burn, we’re bringing our gear back and cleaning it.”

A 2018 report by researchers at the University of Fraser Valley cited several carcinogens, such as benzene, formaldehyde, arsenic and cadmium as being present in buildings firefighters have to enter. Fires can flare to extremely high temperatures, causing these chemicals to absorb into firefighter’s skin over time.

READ MORE: Cancer leading cause of death for firefighters, B.C. study finds

“Five or ten years ago, guys would just hose down at the scene and they’re finding that we get off only what they call gross containments. So they found cleaning at the scene was not good enough, you needed some sort of a washer with the proper cleaning and proper spin cycle,“ Klie says.

Terrace’s firefighters can’t just simply wash their gear at home because of contamination risks. The fire equipment is hosed down, put into bags, brought back to the fire hall and then taken to the laundromat.

“Smoke has a lot of hydrocarbons so that actually is a fuel getting on the guys, all their equipment. Basically, your turnout gear that was supposed to protect you during fires is now a combustible material because of this.”

The renovation will move the back wall creating about 36 inches of more space for the new appliances, with a door leading into the hallway inside so staff can wash their day-to-day uniforms as well. Klie estimates the renovation work will start in late November.

— with files from Matthew Allen

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