The Portland Fire and Rescue Bureau honored one of its firefighters last week. Lt. Jerry Richardson died of lung cancer after retiring from the bureau where he served 22 years. Firefighters are often exposed to toxic chemicals from smoke in their jobs, and they have higher rates of cancer than the general population. We talk with PF&R safety chief John Derr to find out more about these risks and what the bureau is doing to mitigate them.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Portland Fire and Rescue lost one of its own last week. Lieutenant Jerry Richardson died of lung cancer. He had served for 22 years. In mourning his death, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the bureau, noted that toxic chemicals from years of battling multiple fires had impacted his lungs. The firefighters union called Richardson a selfless servant who made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty. We wanted to hear more about the long term risks that firefighters face and the safety measures that are in place now to try to mitigate them.
So we’ve invited John Derr on, he is a safety chief for Portland’s Fire and Rescue. John Derr, welcome to Think Out Loud, Can you tell us first about Lieutenant Jerry Richardson? What do you most remember about him?
John Derr: I just remember Jerry being a very nice man. I only worked with him a few times, but in my interactions with him, I really enjoyed the time I spent with him... how much he cared for the members that he worked with in the community that he served and how much he enjoyed being a Portland Fire and Rescue member.
Miller: I was struck by that line in the memorial put out by the union that Lieutenant Richardson made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty. That’s a phrase that we’re really used to hearing about police officers and firefighters when they’re in the moment and something terrible happens to them. Here, we’re obviously talking about the potential long term effects of doing his job. Do you see this as a death in the line of duty?
Derr: Absolutely. That definition has definitely changed over the years, from what you’ve mentioned earlier, and now the line of duty death [can be attributed] to cancer. Throughout his service, he’s been exposed to chemicals and gasses throughout the calls that he was on and those directly affected his health and caused his death. We definitely would consider Jerry’s passing a line of duty death.
Miller: How much did you and other firefighters know about the increased risks of cancer for firefighters when you started back in the mid 1990s?
Derr: Back then, we had the protective clothing that we wore and we knew that fires were dangerous and that we wanted to get out of the fire and get showered and get that smoke and soot off of you. It was mentioned in general, but not really pushed that hard.
Throughout my career, that has changed and cancer is definitely at the forefront right now. The industry recognizes that, and so does Portland Fire and Rescue and we definitely take efforts to help reduce the exposures to our members.
Miller: The timing is interesting because in the 90s, we saw huge lawsuits and settlements with big tobacco companies, asbestos lawsuits had started before that. Obviously, there are differences in these circumstances and scenarios, but they share a societal reckoning with increased cancer risks when you breathe certain stuff in. You’re saying that there was some awareness among firefighters when you started back in the 90s, but it wasn’t a major topic of conversation?
Derr: Yeah, I would agree with that. We were always breathing air when we were fighting fire because we didn’t want to inhale the smoke, the superheated gasses and to protect us from the fire in general. But after the fire was out, that’s where the main exposure risk for cancer actually happens. When you’re actually inside the house, you’re not breathing air, you might be wearing a paper filter mask, you’re digging through the burning material to make sure that the fire is out. Those were the times where we really had higher exposure risk that we had yet to identify as being potentially harmful to our members.
Miller: There was more of a sense that the major risk was over and the heavy equipment, which maybe was annoying or cumbersome, you could take off because there wasn’t tons of smoke.
Derr: Correct. We would use fans to get the smoke out, the fire would be extinguished, but it would just be smoldering debris then. We would use gas monitors back then and carbon monoxide was an indicator we would use. [If] the carbon monoxide levels were high, we’re going to continue to breathe air. But once that number dropped, it’s okay to take off your mask and put on a filter mask. Well, those filter masks did not protect you from other gasses, and the synergistic effect that the burning materials were having with each other caused those increased cancer risks.
Miller: There’s also the famous line about firefighters that when everybody else is running away from a burning building, you’re the people who run towards it. You put yourselves in danger in various ways to save people’s lives. I’m wondering how much you think that plays into it. We’re already talking about a group of people who are willing to risk their own lives in various ways. Does that lead to more of an attitude where this is just a risk I’m going to put up with because it’s part of the job?
Derr: I would partially agree with that. Back then when I got hired, you would have some more of that attitude. We risk a lot to save a lot and we do go forward when other people go back during emergencies, but once the emergency is over then there’s no reason to have that attitude anymore. We have the protective gear that we need and the policies in place. We need to protect ourselves while we mitigate the rest of this emergency.
Miller: Has training changed specifically as a result of what you’re talking about and as a result of more of an awareness of the longer timeline of risks?
Derr: Oh, absolutely. Our policies and procedures and equipment purchases have definitely changed throughout my career. We mentioned earlier when I used to put a paper mask on after the fire was out to do the overhaul work. That is not allowed anymore. From the moment we arrive on scene to the moment that we leave the building itself after overhaul, we’re wearing a mask and breathing air. We’re in a self-contained breathing apparatus to protect ourselves from the off gassing of the fire and smoke to help reduce our cancer risks.
Miller: Terry Foster, a veteran member of Portland Fire and Rescue and now a public information officer had a memorable quote in an article about this issue recently in the Portland Tribune. He said: “When I started, sometimes you’d be so tired [after a fire] you wouldn’t shower. You’d put your stuff down and pass out in bed. Then you’d wake up in the morning and see how black your teeth are.”
Have post fire protocols or habits changed as well?
Derr: Definitely. Like I mentioned, we’re breathing air through the whole overhaul process, so that’s reducing our risks. As we come out of the fire scene, we’re actually setting up stations where we can soak down and rinse down our firefighting equipment to get that initial layer off of our equipment. We’re also providing special fire hoods that are particulate blocking because your neck and head are a high exposure area. We have baby wipes that we can wipe our neck and hands down to help get anything that got through the hood off.
Once we’ve rinsed down our turnouts on scene, when you back to quarters, you’re supposed to shower and get everything off that you can. We have an extra set of turnouts at the station now, so you can actually change into a clean set while you’re washing your dirty set in industrial washing machines at each spire station.
Miller: So a whole series of changes from top to bottom. I was struck by another quote in the article in the Tribune that at the same time that all of these safety measures were put in (for increased safety with regard to cancer risks), building materials and furnishings have also changed, which may have made it more dangerous when they burn. Is it fair to say that two things are happening at once? You’re doing your best to make things safer for firefighters, but the world, not intentionally, is actually making it harder for firefighters?
Derr: Yes, there’s a lot of studies about that. Even before I was hired, [the construction industry] would build out legacy materials. They’re building out a heavy timber, they’re using wool products, natural products that don’t off gas the petroleum byproducts.
Nowadays, a lot of stuff is made out of plastics that burn faster, hotter and they off gas a lot more dangerous chemicals. Yes, definitely as buildings have changed, building materials have changed. They have made firefighting more dangerous and have increased our exposure risk to cancer-causing agents.
Miller: Have you heard from firefighters, or experienced yourself that firefighters can actually feel the difference in their lungs these days because of these safety measures like wearing the full masks for longer and washing off immediately makes their lungs feel cleaner?
Derr: I haven’t actually had a conversation based around that topic. I’ve definitely had conversations based around when they come out of fires or go back to the stations. Before, when they showered, and blew their nose, it would come out black. Now, we’re wearing masks and breathing [clean] air throughout the fire and throughout the overhaul process. When they get back to the station and take a shower, they’re not getting all that black material out of their nose anymore because they’re not breathing the smoke.
Miller: It seems like a pretty telling detail though. If it’s not coming out of your nose, it’s less likely it was in your lungs to begin with.
I’m curious what you see as the next steps in terms of firefighter safety. I imagine in a job like yours, you’re never quite satisfied. What are the next frontiers to make this job as safe as it can be while still making it possible for the people that you’re looking after to actually do their jobs?
Derr: We can keep on following national trends. This is definitely a large topic through the international association. The CDC and NIOSH (National Association for Occupational Safety and Health) did a big study. We continually partner with those agencies to see what the next level of standards are going to be. For us, we’ve instituted professional cleaning of our turnouts because we want to ensure a third party looks at our equipment and makes sure that it’s professionally cleaned and not damaged. We also received a grant recently to put source capture exhaust systems into all of our facilities.
All the diesel exhaust from our apparatus, which is a known carcinogen, will now be exhausted from the apparatus base outside. That’s going to reduce the risk to our firefighters.
Miller: John Derr. Thanks for your time today. I appreciate it.
Derr: Thank you for having me.
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