People who call Omaha Fire and Rescue recognize the yellow reflective and protective clothing firefighters wear to fire scenes.
But those fire-retardant coats, trousers and suspenders need to be cleaned after a fire. Firefighters must wash off the ash, soot and household carcinogens that settle on collars and sleeves, knees and backs.
Re-wearing protective gear before washing it increases firefighters’ exposure to chemicals and compounds that, over a career, increase firefighters’ risk of getting cancer, fire union leaders say.
That’s why Fire Chief Dan Olsen worked with the union on a plan to get every Omaha firefighter a second set of “bunker gear” by the end of 2022. The costs were spread over four years to do so within the department’s budget.
The Omaha City Council in June approved a $221,665 bid for 114 sets of the protective gear, at about $1,944 per uniform. Those purchases include first sets of protective gear for new hires and replacements for worn-out gear, in addition to the second sets.
The department so far has ordered second sets for about one-fourth of Omaha’s 664 firefighters.
The chief’s plan provides second sets of gear to firefighters on the front line first, starting with those who work at the city’s busiest fire stations, then eventually to the managers who work in offices.
Firefighters don’t share the gear because each piece is tailored to cover and protect a firefighter’s skin.
Today, much of that protective gear gets worn dirty if firefighters get another fire call before the clothing can be cleaned, said Capt. Trevor Towey, the fire union’s treasurer.
Olsen has described the new gear as an investment in people who keep the public safe. About 180 firefighters are at work at any given time in Omaha, said Battalion Chief Scott Fitzpatrick.
The plan for a second set of gear is part of a national push by firefighting organizations to limit exposure to fire scenes and contaminants, said Dr. Eric Ernest, associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and assistant medical director for the Fire Department.
Studies have verified the risks of long-term exposure, Ernest said.
The chief’s goal: By late 2022, nobody re-wears dirty gear, because one set can be washed and dried while the other is worn. Union leaders, while they’d have preferred faster action, appreciate the help.
“We know you can’t outfit everybody all at once,” Towey said.