Training Drill Put Firefighters at Risk

A training exercise designed to teach firefighters how to stay safe during a fire emergency may have put them at risk for long-term health problems, says an article in the Everett, Washington Herald.

According to the article, a group of Everett firefighters were exposed to “unknown levels of asbestos” in July, while chopping holes in city-owned houses known to contain the toxic mineral.

The local Department of Labor and Industries says they don’t believe this is the first time this has happened. A state consultant concluded that “all (Everett) fire department personnel at sometime during their career” likely have been exposed to asbestos during similar training because the department doesn’t have a system to check for the hazardous material and notify employees, according to the report from Enrique Gastelum, a hygiene consultation supervisor with Labor and Industries.

Gastelum says he is concerned enough about the exposure to recommend that the affected firefighters receive regular check-ups and lung x-rays to monitor their health. It usually takes between 20 and 50 years for asbestos-related diseases to appear.

In the meantime, the city has stopped what they refer to as “destructive training”, which involves cutting holes in roofs or punching through ceilings and drywall. These techniques are used to ventilate smoke and flammable gases from burning buildings, and to search for fire victims, explains the article.

“We don’t want this to happen again,” said Everett spokeswoman Kate Reardon. “We’re still trying to determine how this came to be. We still haven’t reached a conclusion.”

In the meantime, firefighters are concerned. “We all thought we were safe, and we weren’t,” said Robert Downey, president of the firefighters’ union. “We weren’t wearing our breathing apparatus or anything and we were creating dust clouds. People are worried they brought it home to their families. It turns out we’ve been doing this all along.”

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