Grant money brings ‘breath of fresh air’ for southern Arizona firefighters

Grant money brings ‘breath of fresh air’ for southern Arizona firefighters
The equipment upgrade is possible thanks to a FEMA grant. (Source: Bisbee Fire Dept)

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - From running into burning buildings to pulling trapped people out of vehicles, there’s no question firefighters have a dangerous job. However, one hazard people don’t often think about is the increased risk of chronic illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease.

A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found firefighters are 14% more likely to die from cancer compared to the general population.

“You have plastic, you have rubber in there, you have all of these chemicals that are burning so any type of fire just throws off all kinds of toxic fumes,” said Fire Chief George Castillo with the Bisbee Fire Department.

Firefighters use air packs; essentially oxygen tanks connected to masks, to protect themselves from the smoke.

“[Air packs] are very vital to any firefighter,” said Castillo. “They are life-saving.”

The air packs currently used by the Bisbee Fire Department were purchased in 2001 but Castillo says they are supposed to be replaced every 15 years.

“[A big concern for us is] the electrical system going down to where you don’t know how much oxygen is left in your tank,” said Lt. Raul Villasenor, the EMS Coordinator and Training Officer for the department. “If you’re inside a building, you’re not going to know how much oxygen you have to get out if need be.”

Fortunately, no air packs have malfunctioned on the job. However, several have been taken out of commission.

“We have 11 air packs that are in service and we have; including myself, 20 firefighters,” said Castillo.

This can be difficult, especially in the case of a major fire like the one in Bisbee on Saturday night that had firefighters rotating on and off for more than 8 hours.

Castillo says there is good news, though. The Bisbee Fire Department secured a $347,000 regional grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Villasenor applied for the grant last October and was recently notified it was approved. “We will be able to spend more time inside the fire, not having to switch people in and out as much,” he said.

Bisbee will receive 20 new air packs and a filling station. Castillo says the new air packs can supply oxygen for up to 45 minutes compared to the current ones which last up to 30 minutes. Several will also have integrated thermal imaging so fire fighters can find hot spots faster.

“It’s nerve wracking [to think of the higher rates of cancer among firefighters], especially when you have kids,” said Villasenor, “and it’s nice to know that they are making these upgrades, they are making different equipment to try to make it safer for us.”

The regional grant also covers the San Jose and Naco fire districts, which will also receive new air packs.

Bisbee is expected to get their new equipment in December.

“It’s like Christmas is coming early,” said Castillo. “It’s a breath of fresh air to receive these packs!”

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