Greenport FD gear decontaminated on site

Firefighting is a hazardous profession, not only because volunteers rush into burning buildings to put out fires, but because cancer-causing carcinogens can become trapped in their gear every time they respond to an emergency. 

The National Fire Protection Association mandates that twice a year the jackets, pants, hoods, gloves, boots and helmets worn by firefighters undergo an advanced cleaning. Recently at the Greenport Fire Department, a Mobile Extraction Unit from Redline Gear Cleaning and Inspection Service, spent several hours on site neutralizing and extracting toxic particulates from 25 sets of firefighter’s personal protection equipment.

Redline was founded in 2019 by a firefighter in Massachusetts who discovered there were no mobile gear cleaning services. The gear would have to be sent out, taking two weeks to be returned to a fire house.

“We use a military-grade decontaminant on the outer shells and inner liners of the turnout gear,” said Redline technician Charlie Maury as he pulled pants, jackets and gloves out of the heavy-duty commercial washing machine and loaded them into a cabinet dryer on board the company’s van. “We also inspect the gear for any damage or abnormality that needs to be addressed.” 

Boots and helmets also get decontaminated, scrubbed and wiped down inside and out. “After the engagement, we provide the client with a summary report that lists all the elements inspected and cleaned, any repairs needed as well as gear that should be replaced because most gear only meets the standard for about 10 years,” Mr. Maury said. The cost of cleaning ranges from $120 to $150 for each set of gear. Redline services departments throughout Riverhead and across the North Fork twice each year. 

The primary goal of this process is to protect firefighters in the long term from cancer. “There was a time in the ’70s when a ‘salty’ firefighter wore their dirty gear instead of cleaning it. There was a feeling that the dirtier the gear, the better firefighter you were,” said Greenport Fire Department Warden Cliff Harris. “In the ’70s, we’d go into a house fire faced with burning wood and paper. Now almost everything is plastic and that off-gas and hydrocarbons create more toxins for our people.”

He added that gear is cleaned after every call using the department’s in-house washer and dryer, but the Redline Mobile Gear Cleaning Service does a super deep clean. And the process is staggered so at no time are the firefighters without their gear if the alarm goes off. 

Once a fire is extinguished, firefighters get back into the truck, contaminating the interior. Then they go home, sometimes with their uniform in their car, and that becomes tainted. If the gear goes into their house, it puts their family at higher risk of cancer. Mr. Harris said changing the mindset of firefighters is a priority.

Limiting exposure to these poisonous contaminants is crucial because statistics show that firefighters have a 9% higher risk of developing cancer and a 14% higher risk of dying from cancer compared to the general public. Emergency DECON Services, which operates the Redline MEUs on Long Island, donate a third of their profits to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network each year. 

“We want to fight fires, not cancer,” said Redline technician James Guzman.