Oklahoma City firefighters use new decontamination procedure for safety

OKLAHOMA CITY – They fight the flames and save lives. But, they also have to save themselves.

“We encounter everything from hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfide, benzene, all kinds of hazardous smoke,” said Tammy McKinney, the chief safety officer for the Oklahoma City Fire Department.

Chemicals released from combustion can linger long after the flames are out. McKinney said a firefighter’s bunker gear and even their skin can absorb those chemicals.

And, the risks are high.

“Over the last probably 10 or 15 years, there's been a rise of cancer nationally in the fire service,” McKinney said. “Firefighters are close to 68 percent more likely to be diagnosed with a certain kind of cancer. There's eight kinds of cancer that we're more susceptible to.”

But, now, firefighters in Oklahoma City are using a new procedure to combat that risk. They are hosed down after each fire.

“Once they come out of the fire, we need to get all of that contamination as the best we can off of their gear. What we've found is doing on-scene decontamination gets rid of 85 to 90 percent of the contaminants on that gear,” McKinney said.

She said the crews are not allowed to sleep near their bunker gear and more rigid washing practices are in place for the gear.