Editorial: Generous veterans help courageous firefighters, both in service to community

Saturday, June 09, 2018

A $10,000 washing machine? It sounds pretty mundane, and pretty expensive at the same time. But it can be a life-saver.

Orange American Legion Post 172 has given $10,000 to the Orange Fire Department to buy and install a commercial-grade, heavy-duty washing machine called an extractor, designed specifically to clean the firefighters’ protective gear, and is considered an important step to help reduce cancer among firefighters.

Firefighter James Hopkins spearheaded the effort to get the machine.

“The cancer rate is higher among firefighters than the general population,” Hopkins explained recently, noting the higher cancer risk comes with the job where firefighters are constantly exposed to potential cancer-causing chemicals in smoke and fumes.

But that doesn’t mean it has to be that way.

He ticked off the diseases firefighters are at an increased risk of contracting through the job: testicular cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, skin cancer, brain cancer, prostate cancer, stomach cancer and colon cancer.

Hopkins said the Boston Fire Department conducted a study that stated one reason cancer diagnoses are up among firefighters is that modern homes and businesses are full of synthetics, plastics and chemicals that can explode much faster and coat firefighters in toxic soot.

Chief James Young said it has been found that cancers contracted by firefighters are often “the bad ones, such as deeply embedded tumors.”

The firefighters said recent studies show they are 9 percent more likely to contract cancer and 14 percent more likely to die from it than the rest of the country’s population.

Hopkins, who has been in the fire service for 16 years, said the plan to get a machine to thoroughly clean turnout gear sprang from reading alarming articles about the subject.

The information seemed to resonate for a department like Orange’s, and Hopkins and his peers were motivated to take stronger precautions, especially considering it’s a “young department” with many parents.

“We are focused toward the future of the Orange Fire Department,” he said.

Although firefighters wear state-of-the-art protective clothing and breathing gear, carcinogens become airborne during a fire, adhering to their turnout gear, which can lead to absorption into the bloodstream through the skin. These carcinogens accumulate and can be absorbed over an extended period of time.

“These carcinogens are also brought home to our families,” said Lt. Jason Rushford, president of the Orange Fireman’s Association.

The solution to this problem is regular cleaning of protective clothing following manufacturer’s recommendations, using a commercial-grade extractor built specifically for this purpose. These machines are costly, preventing many fire departments from installing them.

“Right now, the guys are wearing their gear to three, four or five fires before cleaning,” said Hopkins.

Having the extractor in house will result in a significant cost-savings, he said.

Hopkins said he had been thinking about ways to clean the gear when the department was approached by members of the American Legion asking, “How can we help?”

The help the Legion members delivered is “huge,” said Hopkins. “Such a large amount of money. To us, this will save lives in the long run, or at least cut down on the chances of future firefighters getting cancer.”

The town is lucky to have dedicated firefighters willing to risk their lives and health in service to their community. And, it turns out the town is fortunate to have veterans willing to help as well. In recent years, the American Legion has donated more than $7,000 to the ambulance fund, funded the Police Department’s K-9 team and, most recently, donated $7,000 to purchase new American flags for the town.

Good news all around.