NEW PALESTINE — Firefighters risk their lives every day and the particles they breathe in put their health and future at risk.
Sugar Creek Township fire chief Brandon Kleine said it's the unknowns that can get firefighters in trouble.
"Twenty years ago when I started on the job, that wouldn't have bothered me. I would have given it no thought," Kleine said while looking at a dirty towel. "But now you never know what smoke particles that came from or what the cause of the dirt was."
Klein uses an ultrasonic cleaner that helps remove carcinogens from his firefighters' masks. The device was recently donated from 1-800-BOARD-UP, a company that provides victim assistance after emergencies.
According to a study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, compared to the general population in the United States, firefighters face a 9% increase in cancer diagnoses and a 14% increase in cancer-related deaths.
The Firefighter Cancer Registry Act also requires the Centers for Disease Control to develop and maintain a voluntary registry of firefighters to help monitor cancer among those in the profession.
"Our masks are one of the things that carries the most contaminants," Kleine said. "It goes here on our jaw line. It is a place where a lot of soot will settle. It's really good for us to clean these."
It's not the only step the department that serves about 20,000 people in Hancock County is taking to clean contaminants from their protective gear. The procedure is called a gross decon. They have a kit on each engine with a hose, scrubs and brushes that are used to scrub off everything on their protective gear before getting back inside the engine.
At the station, firefighters can wash their gear and place it in a gear dryer, a piece of equipment most fire departments don't have.
"Gear used to be washed and dried the following day after a fire," Lt. Tony Bratcher said. "Now we can do it that day and have it back in service in two hours."
Bratcher said a current and former firefighter at the department have both been diagnosed with caner. He said the steps they are taking are important to make the job safer.
"My kid is seven years old. He thinks the sun rises and sets in firefighters," Bratcher said. "Knowing my kid wants to do this job, I think it's paramount to make sure we make these changes now for the next generation."
Grant money is also helping the Sugar Creek Township Fire Department purchase new filtering hoods to better protect firefighters.