NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WBTW) – The city’s fire rescue is working to prevent its firefighters from developing cancer.
A lot of the risks firefighters have on the job are obvious like going into a burning building. North Myrtle Beach Fire Rescue, however, is fighting against what’s in the air during those fires, which can have deadly, long-term consequences.
The dangers of fires have changed for the men and women who try to put them out, particularly in newer homes.
“There’s a lot more synthetic materials that are being used and not only do they produce a lot more heat, but they produce a lot of other toxic byproducts,” said Nathan Marker, the health and safety officer for NMBFR.
NMBFR is increasing its cancer prevention efforts. A new, important piece of equipment it has is a heavy-duty washing machine.
It’s called a gear extractor and with special detergent, it’s designed to remove carcinogens from firefighters’ equipment.
“It has a lot of contaminants in it, so (the gear extractor) has a much different process to actually clean that gear a little bit better and also be able to handle the load of an entire department,” said Marker.
North Myrtle fire rescue now has gear extractors in four of its five stations. The machines are in the Ocean Drive, Windy Hill, Tidewater and Barefoot Resort stations.
Chief Garry Spain says cancer prevention is about a culture change from firefighters being proud of their ash and smoke.
“Instead of it being a badge of honor to walk around with dirty turnout gear, it’s a badge of honor to have clean turnout gear,” Chief Spain said.
The department also has special sanitary wipes designed to clean off firefighters’ skin. The wipes are called Responder Wipes and they’re supposed to prevent carcinogens from getting into their pores.
NMBFR is also trying to get a second set of gear for each firefighter, so firefighters don’t have to spend an entire shift in dirty, contaminated gear.
“We don’t necessarily know exactly what’s causing the cancer or anything like that, so our aim right now is just to reduce as much as we can of the contaminants from the fire,” said Marker.
Chief Spain says two North Myrtle firefighters have died from cancer in the last 15 years.
The department is also helping provide support for firefighters across the state battling cancer. Marker helped found the South Carolina branch of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.
Marker says the group helps firefighters diagnosed with cancer a toolbox to educate them on what to expect in their battle.
“We also set them up with a mentor,” Marker said. “We try to get a firefighter from somewhere else in the country that had the same kind of cancer that made it through it or is battling it still, and can give them points, tips, what to expect.”
The group is also pushing for legislation in Columbia that would make cancer an occupational disease, which means firefighters could receive workers’ compensation.