By Danny Schrafel
The smoke belching forth from fires in 2015 is much different – and much more toxic – than that from the fires of 30 years ago. But firefighting practices remain stuck in the past, one local fire chief says.
Dix Hills Fire Chief Robert Fling is a man on a mission. He is taking his message on the road in a presentation called “Poisoned,” which aims to better equip first responders to protect themselves from smoke.
When modern manufactured goods and home furnishings burn, many of them are petroleum- or polyester-based “and burn like gasoline,” he said. That results in smoke laden with hydrogen cyanide, a chemical that attacks the heart and brain in rapid-fire fashion. Hydrogen cyanide has a half-life in the body of about an hour and is 35 times more toxic than carbon monoxide.
“It’s like Mike Tyson – it goes in, kicks your ass and it’s out of your body, no trace. The damage is done,” he said.
Fling’s goal is to change the attitudes that firefighters hold about what they breathe in before, during and after a fire response. He argues firefighters must take a scientific approach to their duties, as well as one of a haz-mat technician.
“The modern fire behavior that we have now, what we know is in the smoke, our habits that have not changed in the 270 years of the American fire service – it’s going to start affecting us,” he said.
He’s been taking that message on the road during a series of presentations at firehouses and firefighting conventions across the country, with hopes of bringing the message directly to firefighters. The presentation he gives now is an outgrowth of attending the 2014 Firehouse Expo in Baltimore and the discussions that ensued there. He’ll be giving that presentation in Atlanta, Ga. this summer, and is writing a book, also called “Poisoned,” on the topic.
Changing those habits, he argues, could mean the difference between life and death. Yet still, the old adage, “don’t worry – it’s just smoke” prevails too often.
“If you look at a picture, any pictures of any fire, you’ll see guys with their face pieces off, whether they’re doing overhaul after or before they go in,” Fling said. “What we’re breathing now contains over 800 chemicals. Most of them are known to cause cancer.”
A lifelong Dix Hills resident and ’87 Hills East grad, Fling is the product of a tradition of fire service in his family. He joined in 1996, following in the footsteps of his uncle and two generations before that.
“I’ve always been in love with the fire service,” he said.
But that deference and reverence for tradition that sustains Long Island’s volunteer fire corps may be in part leading to a spike in cancer deaths among the brave men and women who rush in when all others are running away.
Fling said statistics show that 53 percent of all non-line-of-duty deaths of firefighters are caused by cancer, a plight first placed intensely in the public eye in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the deaths of Ground Zero volunteers and responders from various maladies. For one, rates of testicular cancer in male firefighters have more than doubled.
Not only do carcinogens get in through the lungs, volunteers also absorb it through their skin and through their gear. The most common place for firefighters to develop skin cancer, he said, is across the forehead, where an unwashed helmet band meets the skin, resulting in repeated exposure to chemicals even months after the suit is contaminated.
Heightened skin temperature accelerates that process – for every five degrees skin temperature goes up, absorption rates increase by 400 percent.
There are things that volunteers can do to protect themselves, though. Keeping a face piece down at all times is a must, as is washing uniforms and showering – preferably in cold water –
immediately after fires. Vigorous exercise and the heavy perspiration that results helps cleanse some of those toxins, Fling said. Good physical fitness also helps put up a line of defense against hydrogen cyanide.
The chief said volunteers who have participated in the forum have been receptive to his message. But change is slow.
"We know now things that we never knew years ago, but we're still fighting fires the same way," he said.