Firefighters adapting to increased duties, cancer risks

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Jonathan Delozier | Wellington Enterprise
Wellington fire district chief Mike Wetherbee addresses village council April 1, touching on a number of ways that firefighting has changed over the past decade.

JONATHAN DELOZIER
REPORTER

A widening range of duties for firefighters as well as better understanding of health risks associated with the job were among topics Wellington fire chief Mike Wetherbee recently discussed with village council.

Wellington firefighters underwent 4,528 hours of training in 2018 but the department is operating at a roughly 50 percent turnover rate among new hires.

Losing recruits at that pace is a trend reaching beyond Wellington. It has led to many departments needing increased mutual aid, the chief said.

Last year, the WFD fielded a record 566 calls, the fourth year in a row the department has set or tied its call record.

Twenty-one of those calls involved the WFD providing mutual aid while other departments aided Wellington on calls 18 times.

“The need for our services is increasing and we’re running more than we ever have,” Wetherbee said. “About half of those runs are in the village and the other half is divided among the townships. We run first response to Pittsfield, so there’s a lot up there.”

The average Wellington firefighter has been with the department for 12.2 years, a decline from a 17-year average in 1986, Wetherbee said.

In 2016, firefighters across the U.S. responded to 35.3 million calls. That represents a 300 percent increase compared to 1981 even though the population has risen by just 42 percent.

Responses to actual fires represented just four percent of 2016’s national calls and amounted to roughly half of 1981’s total. Providing assistance in medical emergencies made up 68 percent of 2016’s calls, according to the United State Fire Administration.

“Our job is a little bit of everything nowadays,” Wetherbee said. “More and more keeps getting added to the training and to the manual. Training for one firefighter has moved from about 240 hours a year to 270 or 275 over the past few years. There’s training in (hazardous materials), incident command, emergency vehicle driving. It makes it tough to find people. We’ve had real problems keeping people the past seven years. It’s getting tough everywhere.”

“Communities like ours and the townships around here have to ask for help,” he said. “They just can’t do it on their own.”

A recent study by the National Fire Protection Association found that firefighters face a nine percent increased chance of cancer diagnosis and a 14 percent increase in cancer-related death compared to the rest of the population.

The danger doesn’t end when firefighters exit the scene of a blaze, with many cancer risks stemming from continued use of protective equipment that hasn’t been properly cleaned, according to the study.

“We have to start conforming to these state standards that have come with legislation about these cancer issues,” said Wetherbee. “They want us taking showers as soon as we get back from a structure fire. They want us stripping down on-scene and putting our gear in biohazard bags before we take them back to the station.”

A $600,000 expansion to the Kelly Street station is set to take place this summer. The project includes installation of showers, additional truck bays, and a command office.

“There’s all kinds of things being put in place to keep carcinogens off of us and keep us from spreading them all over the place,” Wetherbee said. “Right now, we have nowhere to shower. This expansion will help immensely in that regard and many others.”