A state investigation has been launched into safety standards within the Houston Fire Department after the union representing its firefighters accused the department of failing to protect members from exposure to deadly carcinogens.
The Houston Chronicle reports that the Texas Commission on Fire Protection is examining whether the HFD is in compliance with state laws requiring fire departments to properly clean and maintain standard operating procedures for protective gear.
“Houston firefighters are responding to multiple working fires a day and there is no mechanism that has been initiated to ensure firefighters do not have to wear contaminated bunker gear,” Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton wrote in a letter to the fire commission.
Six current and former firefighters—four of them battling cancer—say the HFD’s cleaning procedures for PPE are inadequate and force members to repeatedly wear contaminated gear. They claim leadership has been reluctant to adopt new practices despite available research linking the job to cancer, and that City Hall has refused to invest in their safety.
Houston Fire Chief Sam Pena said the department has procedures to keep gear clean, but acknowledged other deficiencies the department faces.
“I see the gaps,” Pena said. “I understand where we are in regards to just the big safety problems.”
A review of department policies shows that some procedures fall short of those put in place in other cities such as Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, as well as National Fire Protection Association standards. The HFD lacks equipment to deep-clean gear at any of its fire stations, and only one station is equipped with machines to capture diesel fumes from its pieces of apparatus
The union says 28 firefighters between ages 32 and 60 have died since 2000 from cancers caused by exposure to carcinogens. The union estimates at least 10 active-duty firefighters have cancer, while three more have been medically discharged this year because they are too ill to continue.
Chief Pena says he will seek funds through grants, corporate gifts and donations through the Fire Fighters Foundation of Houston to address safety gaps that cannot be addressed with the department’s current budget.
“It is going to take some time, because we are so far behind in that investment,” the chief said.