Before, the drivers would have sat and breathed in the smoke. Now, they’ll attach a small half-mask to their nose and mouth to help them avoid toxins.
“In the past, that guy was just sitting there. He didn’t have any airway protection and the smoke would have just wafted over him,” said Capt. Albert Borroto, Palm Beach County Fire Rescue spokesman.
The agency will be the first fire department in the nation to use half-masks in the “warm zone,” or the about 100 feet outside the source of a fire where there’s still known carcinogens in the air, said fire-safety specialist Tara Cardoso.
“It adds an extra layer of protection,” she said.
Firefighters outside the “immediate danger to life and health” — or IDTLH — zone will be encourage to wear the masks, Cardoso said. A captain on scene will use a monitor that tests five gases in the air to determine when firefighters should put on the masks, which can be slid on and off once attached to the back of the head.
The masks, designed by 3M, are typically used by painters or people who spray pesticides, said Battalion Chief Bob Kropa. Each of the nearly 1,400 firefighters with the department will get a mask, at the price of about $30 a firefigher, Kropa said.
Kropa said the department has been testing the masks for about a year after a study conducted with the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center revealed the dangers of long-term exposure to particles outside the immediate fire.
He said the masks will help firefighters, who typically work an average of 30 years, avoid the long-term effects of slow smoke inhalation that puts them at a 30 to 60 percent higher risk of some blood cancers.
Kropa said he imagines it’ll soon be an industry standard, and other large departments in Florida, such as Miami-Dade Fire Rescue and Jacksonville Fire and Rescue, are looking into the use as well.
The costs of the mask are small in comparison to the cost to treat some of the common cancers, like multiple myeloma. The treatment for that cancer can be about $100,000, he said.
“The department decided we’re going to go with prevention instead of reaction,” he said.