Nebraska Department Buys Extra Gear as Defense Against Firefighter Cancer Risks

July 17, 2019

The Omaha (Nebraska) Fire Department is buying backup protective gear for its firefighters, giving them a second line of personal defense against cancer risks.

The familiar yellow fire-retardant coats, trousers and suspenders must be cleaned after fires so the ash, soot and household carcinogens that settle on collars, sleeves, knees and backs can be eliminated. The Omaha World-Herald reported that firefighters don’t share the gear because each piece is tailored to protect a firefighter’s skin.

Much of that protective gear gets worn dirty if firefighters get another fire call before what’s called “bunker gear” can be cleaned, said Capt. Trevor Towey, the fire union’s treasurer.

The plan for a second set of gear is part of a national push by firefighting organizations to limit exposure to fire scenes and contaminants, said Dr. Eric Ernest, associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and assistant medical director for the Fire Department.

Studies have verified the risks of long-term exposure, Ernest said.

That’s why Fire Chief Dan Olsen worked with the union on a plan to get every Omaha firefighter a second set of gear by the end of 2022. The costs were spread over four years to do so within the department’s budget.

About 180 firefighters are at work at any given time in Omaha, officials said.

The chief’s goal: By late 2022, nobody wears dirty gear, because one set can be washed and dried while the other is worn. Union leaders said they would have preferred faster action, but appreciate the budget consideration and help nonetheless.

“We know you can’t outfit everybody all at once,” Towey said.

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