South Gulf Volunteer Fire Department Fire Chief Mike Barrett remembers a time when fire gear was intentionally dirtied, and a melted helmet was a source of pride.
Firefighters used to compete this way – with the perception of strength and bravery correlating to the amount of soot that lingered on a firefighter's boots, he said.
Perceptions have changed over his five-decade career. Barrett is glad they have.
"When I first started, you know, it was macho to have really dirty, nasty-looking fire bunker gear,” he said. “Well, that’s actually not a really smart thing to do. We were walking around with cancer-causing products glued to our equipment that we put on and took off every day.”
In 2016, a National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety study found they were at a 9 percent higher risk of receiving a cancer diagnosis, and succumbed to cancer at a 14 percent higher rate, than the general U.S. public.
The culprit, many researchers suggest, is the increased use of toxic-building materials, which can embed themselves in the weave of bunker gear when a building burns down.
For Barrett and his crew at South Gulf Fire Rescue, combatting this issue has a $10,000 price tag.
“One of the things we looked into was, OK, what can we do to make it better?” Barrett said. “We worked in conjunction with the county grant, and we found a grant program that’s run by the state to where they would help fund paying for a bunker gear extractor.”
The extractor, an industrial strength washing machine designed to remove carcinogens from firefighters’ gear, stands at about 10 feet tall. As electricians and mechanics installed it last Thursday, it dwarfed Station 2’s existing washer and dryer.
Assistant Fire Chief Patrick Foy couldn’t help but comment on its monster size.
“Well, you can’t buy that at Sears.”
Foy had been instrumental to getting the extractor, Barrett said. The assistant chief researched the extractor’s benefits and helped facilitate conversations between the county and the firehouse.
With the local government’s backing, Fire Station 2 secured the mammoth appliance for only $2,500 out-of-pocket costs, which Foy said was luckily covered by donations received through their associated 501(c)(3).
“There are 10 fire departments?” he asked.
“Eleven,” Barrett replied.
“Eleven fire departments in Gulf County. Every one of them is a volunteer department... and the equipment isn’t any cheaper for a volunteer fire department,” Foy said “So, an extractor in a larger city – a Dallas, a Cleveland, a New York – they’ve had those for years. But some departments probably aren’t even thinking about it.”
Barrett said the extractor will be worked into his firefighters' regular routine, with the department requiring bunker gear be washed between uses and hung up to dry.
The response from the volunteer firefighters, the chief said, has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s a simple answer,” Barrett said, “Are people worth it? Absolutely, they are.”
“This is one of many positive steps that South Gulf is taking, and it’s all because of the determination of the people in the department, the support we get from the citizens out here, and the positive working relationship we have with the county," he said.