Aiken Public Safety taking steps to prevent cancer among firefighters

Thursday, August 01, 2019
News 12 at 6 O’Clock/NBC at 7

AIKEN, SC (WRDW/WAGT) -- Weeks ago, we introduced you to an Augusta firefighter battling cancer. It's not just him suffering. With their line of work, cancer affects so many.

South Carolina is one of only two states without a bill that helps firefighters if they get cancer. Two bills are now sitting in House committees, so cities are taking their own steps to protect firefighters.

In Aiken, new research led to a change in thinking.

“Our gear used to be the dirtier meant you were there. You've done it. You've been inside. You fought fire. You fought the beast,” said Aiken Public Safety Sgt. Mike Grabowski. “Now, we want the officer to come out and their gear is completely clean."

For Grabowski, it’s a big change from when soot-covered gear was a badge of honor -- a necessary change for the times as fires get more dangerous.

“Today, everything is made of plastics, which is basically oils,” Grabowski said.

Those oils are packed with cancerous toxins that can even be absorbed through the skin.

“We are treating it as sort of hazmat now,” Grabowski said.

They treat it through scrubbing their helmets and washing their gear in extractors.

“We wash them separate, b cause all your chemicals and stuff is going to bind to the outside,” Grabowski said.

Even disinfecting the hoses is required. When a truck leaves or returns, machines clean chemicals from the air in the garage. Still, 11 Aiken Public Safety officers have battled cancer in recent years.

So last year, the city stepped up to buy cancer insurance for every officer.

"Talking to some of the officers who've come down with cancer. Financially, what it does to them, it helps give you some reassurance that you won't go broke,” Grabowski said.

For Grabowski, it’s a personal responsibility, too.

“Taking care of your gear. Taking care of yourself ultimately, taking care of your family because you'll be around,” Grabowski said.

One step Aiken has not made is to buy an extra set of gear for each officer like departments in Augusta have. But this is not just a state issue -- it's national. The CDC started a National Firefighter Cancer Registry last year to track this growing epidemic.

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