MADISON (WKOW) -- It's no secret that fighting fires is a dangerous job, but you might be surprised at how dangerous it really is. It's not just the flames anymore that concern fire departments, but smoke is now proving to be just as dangerous.
"Fire fighting is not a safe profession, period," Madison Fire Department's Division Chief Michael Dibble says. "There are a lot of things that happen in a dynamic fast-moving event."
Despite more in-depth training and numerous advances in technology, the number of firefighter accidents and fatalities nationwide is still relatively high. The most recent numbers from the National Fire Protection Association show that 64 firefighters were killed and nearly 70,000 others were injured on the job in 2012. Firefighters say the reason these numbers are staying high is because fires are burning faster and hotter than ever and the smoke has never been more toxic.
"It's a recipe for disaster if you aren't aware of the conditions," Dibble says.
These conditions have lead to an overwhelming cancer rate among firefighters. Studies have shown professional fire fighters are more likely to develop cancer than the general population. A study from the University of Cincinnati shows that firefighters have a 102% higher rate of testicular cancer, a 53% higher rate of multiple myeloma, 39% higher rate of skin cancer and at least 20% higher rate of six other common forms of cancer. Researchers say it's all thanks to the growing number of synthetic petroleum-based products in our homes "Chemicals are all around us. They're in our homes, they're in all of our products," Environmental Health Researcher Dr. Susan Shaw says.
Dr. Shaw has studied the affects of toxic smoke on firefighters for several years. She says it's the main reason why professional firefighters nationwide have a general life expectancy of only 59 years. She is about to start a brand new study of more than 100 New England firefighters. She plans to test their blood and urine for early signs of cancer and every five years she'll check back to see if there are any changes. The study will continue for the next 15-20 years.
"Cancer is causing about 56% of all line of duty deaths in fire fighting," Dr. Shaw says.
Fire fighters say the dangerous chemicals they encounter in the field aren't only known to cause cancer, but also make fighting fires more difficult. The homes they respond to are filled with an increasing amount of petroleum-based products. These products include stereo systems, toys and even furniture and carpeting that are made of synthetic fibers. Firefighters say that when these products burn they release flammable gas that can quickly ignite and cause the fire to spread even faster.
"Our enemy has changed," Madison Assistant Fire Chief Lance Langer says. "It's really changed our tactics in the last 5-7 years."
New firefighters in Madison are shown a video put out by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that shows how drastic this change really is. Researchers set two makeshift rooms on fire at the exact same time. The room on the right is filled with modern day furnishings. The room on the left is filled with older products made of wood and fabric. The fire in the modern room quickly spreads and engulfs the room in less than three minutes. The older style room takes nearly 25 minutes to catch up.
"Dangerous situations happen sooner. The fires heat up more swiftly. These rooms are now heating up to 1,800 degrees and no one alive can sustain that heat," Madison Fire Department Training Captain Paul Ripp says.
Captain Ripp also says that newer building construction techniques are also creating problems for firefighters. He teaches his new recruits how to tell the difference between what's known as a "Legacy Style" home and a "Modern Style" home. Most homes built after the 1980's feature light-weight construction. That means the roofs and floors are built with a complex network of smaller cross beams and trusses. Researchers say this construction technique is not only cheaper, but is also stronger than legacy building of the 1960's and 70's. The only problem is that research conducted by NIST and the National Fire Protection Association shows that lightweight construction tends to collapse three times faster than roofs and floors built using old style building.
"You have to get done in about one quarter of the time which you used to have. Say you had 15 minutes to fight a fire,now that's down to about four minutes," Dibble says. These new threats have made firefighter training more important than ever. The Madison Fire Department has created several new protocols in recent years that aim to protect crew members in the field. They require firefighters to wear breathing masks whenever they enter a burning building and members aren't allowed to take them off until they get the all clear from their superiors. The department also urges its members to hose down their suits before they leave a scene, because toxic chemicals can get stuck in the fibers of their suits. The department is also starting to use special monitors that test the air around firefighters for toxic chemicals. If the readings are too high they won't let firefighters take off their masks until the readings go back down to normal.
"Our members love our jobs. They love going out in the community and then when they get to retire at 55, 57, 58, we find that their life expectancy after that is not as fruitful or the golden years as they say is not as beneficial as we thought," Chief Langer says. "We try to reach out to our recruits and tell them how important it is to take care of themselves when they're young."
Firefighters say these new threats don't only affect firefighters, but also affect everyday people. They say families have less time to escape a burning building because fires are spreading faster than ever before. They suggest creating an escape plan and practicing it with your entire family.
For more information about fire safety visit these informative websites:
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