Fighting for local firefighters

MICHIGAN CITY – The average lifespan of the typical American is approximately 78 years. However, the average lifespan of an American firefighter is about 65, according to Michigan City Fire Chief Randy Novak.

Novak talked statistics with the Michigan City Common Council on April 3, and said firefighters are significantly more likely to develop various cancers than the average person:

n Testicular cancer – 2.02 times greater

n Multiple myeloma – 1.53 times greater

n Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – 1.51 times greater

n Skin cancer – 1.39 times greater

n Brain cancer – 1.31 times greater

n Malignant melanoma – 1.31 times greater

n Prostate cancer – 1.28 times greater

n Colon cancer – 1.21 times greater

n Leukemia – 1.14 times greater

These are national statistics generated by the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, which attributes the increased cancer rates to the inhalation and absorption of chemicals emitted from regular household items when they burn.

Novak said in a telephone interview Tuesday, “It used to be that the only thing you had to worry about was cotton and wood. Now, everything is plastic. Using plastic makes things cheap and lightweight; but there are so many nasty chemicals that you’re exposed to when you breathe in that smoke.”

He told the city council that when one’s skin temperature rises by 5 degrees, such as when that person is inside a burning building, his or her chemical absorption rate increases by 400 percent.

Novak attributed elevated instances of thyroid and testicular cancers in firefighters to that increased absorption.

“When firefighters are sweaty in those areas and their gear is dirty and their pores are open, that’s what happens,” he said.

The chief cited one study that called for firefighters to sit in a sauna so their sweat could be collected. He said the results showed they emitted heavy metals from their pores because of the chemicals their bodies absorb when they’re on the job.

Another study, Novak said, simulated a fire, but instead of soot, involved the use of a powdered dye visible only under UV light. Firefighters entered the fake fire as they would a real one, and then returned to the fire station. There, they behaved as they normally would: They washed their hands, cooked and ate lunch, slept and then returned home.

The following day, the UV lights reportedly showed the dye was present in the firefighters’ homes – on their beds, their laundry, their children’s toys – as well as on their bodies and the bodies of their spouses and children.

Novak said the dye represents the carcinogens to which the firefighters are exposed when they enter burning buildings, and to which their families are exposed when the firefighters return home from work.

“It used to be that a firefighter’s badge of honor was a dirty helmet,” Novak said. “You were the guy that went in to fight the fires and do the work. The guys whose helmets were clean, we gave them a hard time. But now, we want their helmet and their gear to be clean. If they go into a fire, their gear is contaminated and needs to be washed.

“The rule is to shower within the hour, change into clean clothes and get those carcinogens off their bodies as quickly as we can.”

Novak told the council multiple local firefighters attended a national conference in January during which an entire day was devoted to a cancer summit. Those men, he said, are working to help rewrite the Michigan City Fire Department’s standard operating procedures based on what they learned.

He noted that cancer is the cause of death in 56 percent of cases in which a person dies as a result of having worked as a firefighter.

“Being a firefighter is absolutely the hands-down best job in the world,” Novak said. “We signed on to do a lot of things: Drive fire engines, run into burning buildings, save people’s lives. But we didn’t sign on to get cancer.”

Shortly after Novak’s presentation on April 3, Councilman Ron Hamilton introduced an ordinance on first reading that, if approved, will appropriate $99,630 from the Cumulative Capital Development Fund to pay for new equipment for the MCFD:

n 12 complete sets of Fire Dex Tec/Gen 71 turnout gear (coat, pants and suspenders), helmets, gloves and boots for the six new-hire firefighters who will join the department this summer – $36,000

n 168 Gore or Nomax particulate hoods, allowing each of the 84 firefighters one hood to use and one to have as a backup – $21,000

n 6 G1 4500 psi SCBA air packs with ITIC and face pieces – $32,670

n 12 4500 psi 45-minute low-profile cylinders – $9,960

Novak said the purpose of the new equipment is “to keep our firefighters safe, help them to live longer and keep being able to do what they do.”

The council will hold a public hearing on the matter at their April 17 meeting at 6:30 p.m. in the Common Council Chambers at City Hall, 100 E. Michigan Blvd.

They will vote on whether to approve the ordinance at their May 1 meeting.