For Sonoma County firefighters, the dangers didn’t end with the extinguishing of the last flame in October 2017. The many toxic chemicals that are manufactured into modern home construction materials, once released by flames and smoke, stick to all the gear our firefighters wear. Without properly washing equipment to extract these chemicals from their gear, firefighters are in danger of repeated toxic exposure, as the toxins are tracked through the fire stations, adhering to floors and walls and ultimately brought home to their families.
Firefighters have rates of cancer diagnoses 9 percent higher than the general public and cancer deaths 14 percent higher.
According to Sharyle Patton, Director of the Biomonitoring Resource Center at Commonweal in Bolinas, “Firefighters can be exposed to hundreds of toxic chemicals on the fire ground and the October fires were no exception, when firefighters were fighting fires in mobile home communities, hotels, hospitals, private homes, woodland fires, cars, vehicles and commercial buildings. The combination of these kinds of fires creates a toxic soup that firefighters can carry back to the station on their turnout gear…. More than 60 percent of deaths among firefighters are due to cancer. This has to stop.”
Captain Jimmy Bernal of the Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District’s Cotati station recalled at a recent Commonweal event that personnel from the station worked for days on end during the October fires. He recalls, “Sleeping with our gear on, unable to shower for four days. And sleeping in the vehicles that were exposed to all the contaminants is scary because the cancer risk has gone up. Back in the day, what was burning was cotton, wood – solid materials. We don’t have that anymore… I’m a father of two. Most of us have kids. And we want to see them grow up.”
Studies indicate that special clothes washers, called extractors, can effectively do the job of extracting dangerous toxins – many of which are carcinogens – from fire fighting gear. But these extractors are not standard equipment in every firehouse.
For this reason, community members are stepping in to raise funds for this equipment. Reb Irwin Keller, Spiritual Leader of Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati, has joined up with local Realtor Julien Camp and to launch a GoFundMe campaign to raise the needed money to buy and install an extractor at the Rancho Adobe Fire Station across the street from the Cotati synagogue. “The firefighters put their lives on the line to protect us in October,” said Keller. “Now it’s time we protect them back.”
The crowd-funding campaign focuses on the Cotati station, but hopes to be a model for communities across the County.
An extractor costs $7,000-9000, depending on capacity, and there are associated costs for installation and utility upgrades. The campaign has raised over $2300 so far from residents of Cotati, Penngrove and Sebastopol, with the hopes of raising $18,000 to afford the firefighters a top-of-the-line extractor. Campaign organizers hope to raise the rest of the money quickly. “It is fire season again,” said organizer Julien Camp. “We hope the season will pass without incident. But realistically, there could be fires. And we don’t want these folks fighting one more fire without the means to protect themselves from the toxic exposure.”
To help raise funds for the extractor, visit the campaign site at https://www.gofundme.com/protect-our-firefighters.
For more information, call Reb Irwin Keller: (415) 637-2003 or Julien Camp: (707) 478-3205.