Kailin Waterman, SFFD Rescue 1 | SFFCPF Board Secretary

Let’s all take a moment to look how far we have come in the last 20 years for our own health and cancer awareness. Think about the time when washing turnouts was almost unheard of.

“Don’t take your stuff home to wash: it is terrible for your machine at home.”
“Don’t wash them at a laundromat: it is not good for the public to see that.”

There was even the underlying belief that the smoke smell was some kind of badge of honor. So, on we went sleeping near our boots and pants every night while they off-gassed. We rarely washed them, and that was mostly just a hose down. We went so far as to wear them to watch TV and while we hung out. We were in or near them pretty much all of the time.

People said the culture was unmovable, these things would never change. But thankfully, they have. We have extractors in every station. Turnouts are not making it into dorms anymore. And furthermore, we aren’t wearing them unless actively fighting fire.

Some years ago, we asked if the turnout companies would make us a PFAS-free set and they laughed at us saying it would never happen. But this last contract we were able to get an almost 100% PFAS-free turnout (save for one layer of the vapor barrier). And, fingers crossed, even that may be removed someday soon.

Though change has been slow, it is happening. And yet, the biggest hurdle is ourselves. The best way for us to progress is for each and every one of us to be proactive in our own health and awareness. What can we do?

You are responsible to wear your mask all the time.  No one is going to make you do it. Be your own advocate. Is being cool important or being alive? The air in your SCBA is free—you already have it on your back—just put the mask on and keep it on when in a smokey environment.

Wash your stuff after every fire. Why not? The extractor is in your house. There is a drying room. It will be ready for you by next watch.

Clearly, there are a lot of questions about wearing plastics in a super-heated environment vs. the old leathers. Regardless of your stance or choice, the helmet and liner carry the same exposure hazards, so you should clean them and replace regularly. Why do we somehow neglect the piece of equipment directly contacting our heads?

SAFELY TRANSPORT YOUR TURNOUTS (if you must move them)
Don’t bring your dirty turnouts in your car where your friends and family will be riding. If you must transport them, try the trunk, a bin with a closed top, or a garbage bag. But those things are not good for your loved ones.

To give an example: We sent samples to be tested by Dr. Graham Peaslee’s team at Notre Dame University for PFAS and other toxins. Mind you, there were both brand new and battle worn sets. New or used, he required his team to wear gowns, gloves and masks when handling the gear because of what these samples contained. This is the stuff we wear! Don’t expose others.

The new program with the Cancer Champions is another way to be proactive. A lot of the focus is on being aware of your body and changes it might be going through as a way to be in touch to catch something early. You know your body the best. If something is new, off, or different then go get it checked out. Your best chance is to catch and treat anything early.

Take the list of recommended screenings we have to your PCP (primary care physician) and don’t let them talk you out of it.  You have to be your own advocate. If they are fighting you on screenings, then maybe they aren’t the best PCP for you.

It is a tragic reality that we all know someone who lives with, or has passed away from, cancer. The terrible toll it takes on the person and their loved ones is undeniable. Don’t be lazy—for yourself and your family—it will only hurt you and them in the end. No one will remember how bad ass you looked standing in that smokey fire with no mask on. They will remember, however, the terrible and painful process as cancer or the treatment takes a toll on your body. I don’t want that for you.

The whole “30 In 30 Out” cry sounds silly, but I want that and much more for all of you. We know more now and have more preventative measures than ever before. We should also have better outcomes and life expectancy.