Evolving construction putting firefighters in greater danger

Firefighters dealing with more dangerous fires, high cancer risk

SAN ANTONIO – Firefighting is an evolving career and adapting is essential when someone's life depends on it. 

Construction has changed. Buildings are now more efficient and eco-friendly. That is great for many community members, but most people don't realize it puts firefighters in much more danger. 

"If you look at the traditional woods, mill wood, lumber, things they used to build houses with, and then they would fill in the gaps with plaster, with lath materials to make it insulated. Those things are still in the city here but the majority of our construction is lightweight modern construction," San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood explained. "You see about 65 percent of homes that are built with lightweight construction, it’s cheaper, it’s more effective as far as energy consumption, it’s really good in harsh environments."

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The chief said, however, the newer materials and structure shapes burn faster and hotter, making fires more dangerous to fight.

"It’s changed our tactics. It’s changed our strategies. When we get there we have to understand the environment, the type of construction we’re operating and how do we operate in that safely," he said, giving an example. "So if you listen to a radio dispatch you’re going to hear a 10-minute elapse-time notification from the time we arrive on the scene. It jogs the memory of the incident commander to say, ‘OK, I’ve been in this building for 20 minutes. Can this type of construction stand the amount of heat in this time frame?'"

Hood made a point to say living in newly built homes or complexes is not dangerous, as long as there are sprinklers and smoke detectors in case of an emergency.

For the firefighters, however, it's also about what happens to these materials when they burn.

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"We know that hydrogen cyanide is produced, carbon monoxide is also produced. Now there are toxins out there that when they are exposed to heat they’re putting off chemicals and toxins that we have no idea sometimes," he said.

It’s not just building materials that have become more toxic when they burn. It’s also furniture and decorations.

"You see the furnishings. You see the carpets. You see the vinyl finishes. You see the neoprene and polyester and all of those things that are stuffing our furniture. It used to be wood, it used to be cotton. Those things have been replaced with plastic and varnishes and vinyl, things that are going to put off some really toxic gases," Hood explained.

Working in those gases comes with heavy consequences.

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"We have absolutely seen an increase in firefighters getting cancer and the cancers we are seeing are abnormal cancers, unusual cancers for people in their age groups. We are seeing younger healthy firefighters contracting cancer," Hood said.

It's why training programs, daily routines, and even fire codes have been changed to prevent the city's heroes from enduring even more risk.

Regardless of these higher risks, Hood said the job applications come flooding in. 

"They want to join it desperately. They’ve had a dream of being a firefighter. We make sure they understand the risk, make sure their families understand the risk, and then we go out every single day and try to protect them in the best way we can," he said.


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