Photo: Jason Fochtman, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer
After years of lobbying and funding requests, members of The Woodlands Fire Department began to receive their new, second set of “bunker gear” on Friday, giving the more than 140 firefighters another set of critical personal protective equipment to change into when multiple incidents happen in one day.
Fire Chief Palmer Buck, who began work last fall in the top role at The Woodlands Fire Department, confirmed that the project to obtain a second set of heavy-duty protective firefighting gear had started and distribution would continue on May 22 and May 29 as all 160 firefighters get the new pants, jackets and hoods.
The drive to get more “bunker gear” was initiated by former fire chief Alan Benson, who retired in May 2019, and was widely supported by former and current members of the township’s Board of Directors who carved out extra funding for the gear in the 2020 township budget.
The “bunker gear” that firefighters wear to fires and other accidents can become coated in various cancer-causing substances such as soot from chemical fires, liquid carcinogens and other contaminants. When firefighters return from a scene, the sets of gear they wear are placed into super heavy duty washing machines that can only clean two sets at a time. The drying of the gear is also an issue.
Due to the contaminants, the gear has to go through two stages of decontamination: a “gross decon” at the scene of an incident, which means the firefighter is sprayed with water and has contaminants brushed off while wearing the gear, and then at the fire station, where the uniforms are put into a specialty, heavy duty washer — which holds only two suits — before they must dry for hours. The issues related to cleaning and drying the gear led Lt. Chris Polnick to make his own, home-made dryer.
“As part of the 2020 budget, the board approved a second set of firefighting gear, or ‘bunker gear.’ This is a huge win for the fire department, the gear we were able to purchase was the newest, top-of-the-line gear. It is specifically designed to keep our firefighters safe not only from the fighting fires, but also to reduce the incidences of cancer,” Buck explained. “Cancer has been very problematic in the fire service, with a higher rate of incidences than the normal population.”
Buck noted that smoke, chemicals and other elements from fires and motor vehicle accidents have an ability to seep through various tiny gaps in older sets of ‘bunker gear’ and the new equipment is more sealed to keep those elements from reaching sensitive areas on the body. The new sets also prevent bringing contaminated gear into sleeping quarters.
Second set sought after
Former board members such as John McMullan and Carol Stromatt, as well as current board members Bruce Rieser, John Anthony Brown, Gordy Bunch and Ann Snyder were vocal in their support for the extra set of gear, something Erik Secrest, president of The Woodlands Professional Firefighters Association, said is very appreciated by members of the department.
The township approved significant funding in the proposed 2020 township budget initiatives in September 2019 that allowed fire department officials to purchase the extra sets of firefighting uniforms. The funding request also included new technology to control traffic signals and two additional high-water heavy duty trucks. In the special budget initiative, the fire department will buy 140 second sets of bunker gear for all department staff at a cost of $448,800, said Monique Sharp, the township’s assistant general manager for Finance and Administration.
The new equipment includes a set of pants, a coat and a firefightering hood. About one-third of the department’s firefighters received the new uniforms on May 15, while the remaining two-thirds of the department will get the new sets of gear on May 22 and May 29.
Firefighters faring well with COVID-19
Buck said two months into the COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic, the department’s staff is doing well and staying healthy. At one point in April, between 12 and 24 firefighters went into quarantine due to possible interactions at fires or accidents with COVID-19 symptomatic or positive patients, however as of May 15, there are no firefighters in quarantine and nobody ever tested positive for the virus.
“They are all back to work. Nobody ever tested positive. We would cycle people in and out (with quarantine). We’re doing very well,” Buck said of the possible exposures to COVID-19 novel coronavirus.
The pandemic is also leading to new opportunities for the department to serve the public. Under orders from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, local firefighters are being enlisted to test residents of elder care and nursing homes for the virus. Buck said The Woodlands Fire Department is helping with that task as best possible.
“We are working on a taskforce with Montgomery County Hospital District, Montgomery County Public Health and and Montgomery County Fire Marshal’s office. The first wave is to test residents and staff in state-licensed nursing homes. There are 12 in Montgomery County,” Buck noted. “We have a mandate to get it done within two weeks. We’re looking at bwteeen four and eight of our firefighters to be part of the (local) task force. We will augment (officials) and help them out with nursing homes in The Woodlands.”
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