'This is for us and our families': Iowa chief vows to protect firefighters from cancer
A small-town volunteer fire department makes changes to reduce exposure to carcinogens after losing one of its founders to cancer
By Sarah Calams
Sponsored by LION
For the last 20 years, Fire Chief Todd Ross has worn an important reminder on his helmet. And while his helmet has changed as he's risen through the ranks, that thin pink band has remained the same.
The band, which raises awareness about firefighter cancer, signifies something much deeper for Ross. Twenty years ago, Bob Riddle – a founding member of Denmark Fire & Rescue in Iowa – died of brain cancer.
Riddle was not only a mentor to Ross, but also a close friend. Ross was by Riddle's side from the moment he was diagnosed until he died.
"I've had the same picture in my head for the last 20 years," Ross said. "I watched him go through that. It was horrific."
Since then, Ross has vowed to do whatever it takes to protect himself and his department from the harmful effects of carcinogens. That’s why Denmark Fire & Rescue signed LION's "Not In Our House" pledge, which is a program that raises awareness and provides information to help firefighters reduce their risk of exposure to carcinogens.
Adopting best practices to address firefighter cancer
Ross, a 25-year veteran volunteer firefighter, became chief three years ago. He began his career at Denmark Fire & Rescue and steadily rose through the ranks. His initiation as chief, however, started out rocky.
"I came up through the ranks and eventually became an assistant chief," Ross said. "Two months after the election, the chief came up to me and said, 'It's all on you.'"
Ross, who was initially caught off guard by the quick change of events, went in feet first. One of his first initiatives was to adopt safer practices in order to reduce his firefighters' exposure risk to carcinogens.
"In my 25 years of doing this, we do a lot of things differently now than we did back then," Ross said.
Ross' first line of protection for his firefighters came in the form of a gear dryer.
"We got a grant to help pay for most of the gear dryer, and we bought the rest of it," he said. "We don't have that many structure fires, but we still need to wash our gear. I want it washed at least twice a year."
Crews also carry a bucket, which includes dish soap, scrub brushes, trash bags, tape and wipes, to start removing and isolating contaminants on scene.
"The garbage bags – we put our gear in them, bag them up and tape the top of it," Ross said. "I don't want this stuff in the cab. We'll start washing them as soon as we get back."
Last year, firefighters started wearing safety glasses, too.
"I told them, 'You have to remember that you only have one life, you only have one pair of eyes, and we need to start taking care of each other around here,'" he said.
Even though the department only runs one or two structure calls a year, Ross wants to buy a second protective hood for his structural firefighters because the department, he said, is going to advance and make necessary changes as they go.
"We're moving ahead instead of taking two steps forward and three steps back."
And because the majority of the department is made up of younger firefighters, Ross said his mission has become more important than ever.
Cancer: An invisible threat to firefighters
During a training session, Ross showed his firefighters a video from the University of Miami's Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. In the video, two firefighters are sprayed with invisible dye representing soot from a fire response.
The soot, which originated on the firefighters' turnout gear, is later shown under ultraviolet lights on the firefighters' skin, inside their fire station, inside their personal vehicles and even on their family members.
For Ross and his crew, this demonstration hit home.
"One of the firefighters in the video was playing ball with his kid," Ross said. "He didn't even have his bunker gear on, and they put the ultraviolet light on this little boy and it was all over his soccer ball and on his skin."
After watching the video, Ross reminded firefighters about the importance of adopting decon practices at home.
"I told them, 'Throw your normal street clothes in the wash, take a shower, but not too hot of a shower – take a lukewarm shower, scrub yourself with soap,'" he said. "We're making a big deal out of it because we need to. This is for us and our families."
Every change makes a difference
Adopting preventive measures, Ross said, is not nearly as difficult as some volunteer departments may think.
"If you've got a dryer and a washer machine, then you've got half the battle – if not more – already."
The other half of the battle, he said, is training and knowledge.
"Your kids are the next generation. Do you want something like this to cost you just because you wanted to volunteer, protect and serve your community? Is it really worth it?" he said. "That's why we're doing this now instead of later."