New standards to combat the invisible danger to firefighters

At a fire on Millhouse Drive Thursday morning, standard tactics were used to knock down the flames.

The call out also included the rescue of a pet, which Battalion Chief Mark Moellenberg, indicated was pretty routine. "One of our Medic crews gave the pet oxygen and the pet is up and running around now,” said Moellenberg.

After the fire was extinguished - something out of the ordinary took place. The crews went through a decontamination process that’s typically seen when hazardous materials are involved.

Everyone on scene was washed down and not just with a hose. "We have kits on all of our fire trucks now that have brushes and water hoses in them. Wipes and soaps that we can clean off at the scene we can get all the stuff off us before we go back to the station,” said Moellenberg.

It’s part of a new safety policy that includes removing protective clothing and then sealing it all in bags.

"It was a badge of courage in the fire service for a long time to have dirty gear a messy helmet, and now we are certain to see the badge of courage is that we have clean gear, a clean helmet, we are washing all of our stuff, so once we get to retirement it’s something we can enjoy,” said Moellenberg.

Recent studies indicate firefighters have a higher rate of developing certain types of cancers than people in the general population. According to the CDC the increased risk is for cancers of the respiratory, digestive, and urinary systems. Typically, washing the outside of Turn-Out gear gets most of the carcinogen off. But fire investigators found the interior, the inside of jackets, wasn't clean and that means the risk is still there.

"It’s going to be a cultural change nationwide for the fire service,” said Lt. Troy McMillin with AFD Safety Services. McMillin helped set up the Austin Fire Department's decontamination policy.

"So far it seems to be working well. We are still working out the kinks for it,” said Lt. McMillin. 

Temporary replacement gear is part of the AFD policy. It comes sealed in white plastic bags.

AFD has about 500 sets of extra jackets and pants to loan out. "We are able through our system to look up their sizes, a draw sizes to each individual fire fighter here, and they'll be in this loaner gear until we are able to get them back into their front line gear,” said Lt. McMillin. 

A team with AFD Safety Services delivers the new gear before a scene is cleared.

Doing that reduces down time for Austin fire fighters, and the need to get back into contaminated clothing if immediately sent to another fire.

Pflugerville fire crews are looking to budget money to get extra turn out gear like AFD. The Leander Fire Deptartment was among the first in the area to have an immediate decontamination policy.  

Cedar Park and Georgetown also have policies. Georgetown is in the process of expanding its policy by adding decontamination areas at fire stations.