San Antonio Fire Department’s cancer prevention initiative becomes model for other fire departments

Program is now in its fourth year

SAN ANTONIO – Outside his office on the second floor of the Public Safety Headquarters in downtown San Antonio, Fire Chief Charles Hood has a space that honors fallen firefighters.

Seven of those photos are of firefighters who have died from occupational cancer.

“The silent killer is the one where our members fight for years. They fight sometimes five or six years, and they still die,” Hood said.

His department has adopted several programs to reduce exposure and keep crews safe.

“We want to make sure that we’re doing everything humanly possible with these cancer efficiencies to make sure that our men and women in this department, they’re comfortable with the job that they’re doing, their families are comfortable and know that we’re trying to take care of them,” he said.

One of those programs is the Quartermaster Program, started in 2019. Crews directly exposed to harmful chemicals during a call are delivered a change of gear before they leave the scene. The dirty gear is cleaned and inspected.

“We do these things to honor those members who are lost to occupational cancer,” Hood said.

It’s quite a culture change, according to Craig Balter with the SAFD Division of Safety and Survivability.

“The mentality was then the dirtier your gear was, the more experience you had,” Balter said about when he started his career 29 years ago.

Clean is the name of the game now.

“Clean gear is the best way. You want to take care of your family. You don’t want to take it home. You don’t want to take it back to the station,” Balter said.

He helps coordinate the Quartermaster program and keeps track of more than 2,000 sets of gear in the inventory room. Those in the program listen to calls and are ready to pack the crew’s changes of gear and head to calls before firefighters leave the scene.

“We don’t want them to take dirty gear into a fire truck. It’s just like any contamination. It spreads once it touches something, then it’s on that, and then it just continues down the line,” Balter said.

In one day, they can swap out more than 40 gear sets.

“I’m helping firefighters stay healthy,” Balter said. “We don’t want them being exposed, and in 10 or 15 years, they get sick.”

San Antonio was among the first cities to have a Quartermaster program. Balter said many other cities are interested in learning how the program works.

About the Authors

Patty Santos joined the KSAT 12 News team in July 2017. She has a proven track record of reporting on hard-hitting news that affects the community.

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