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N4T Investigators: Fire Station Safety

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TUCSON (KVOA) - Tucson Fire Department's 2019 Annual Report showed most fire stations are old, small, and as the News 4 Tucson Investigators found out, potentially dangerous.

Improvements funded by taxpayer money have begun or been scheduled to be made to several fire stations. The News 4 Tucson Investigators saw first hand how your money is expected to fund potentially life-saving station upgrades.

According to the International Firefighters Association, cancer has been the leading cause of death among firefighters. Throughout the last 10 years, cancer took nearly 1,3000 firefighters' lives. Eleven were from Arizona and two were from Tucson.

“The fire service is losing far too many lives in the line of duty and occupational cancer is no way to go out,” Laura Baker, a former Tucson Fire Department's Assistant Fire Chief said. 

Baker was Tucson's first female assistant fire chief. She met her wife through the department.   

“Losing my beloved spouse, Captain Jacki deHaro to occupational cancer is hard to fully embrace,” Baker said. 

They loved each other, their job and our community.  

She was in operations for her entire 21-year career,” Baker said. 

She said they didn't think much about the long-term effects of firefighting. They didn't know better. Instead, they were focused on the moment, fighting fires and saving lives.

“The way we really invest in our firefighters wasn’t what it needed to be and not what it is today,” Baker said. 

Firefighters have continued to live in outdated conditions.

“This station was built in the 1960s,” Joe Gulotta, Tucson Fire Department's Assistant Fire Chief said. “It was never intended to be used by so many people and for so long.”  

Working out has always been a part of the job but at Station 9 fitness equipment has not been able to be used without firefighters first moving engines and trucks to create adequate space.

“It is not acceptable...” Gulotta said.  

The emergency vehicles have been emitting exhaust with harmful chemicals.

“The turnout gear and the wall are coated with diesel exhaust,” Gulotta said. 

After returning from a call, some firefighters have been left to wait to take turns showering off possible toxins.

For example, in Station 9 there are 16 firefighters. They share two showers and three toilets. 

The living conditions have been similar to or even better than other stations across the country.

Until recently, many unseen firefighting dangers were unknown.   

According to a study from the University of Arizona, “firefighters are at a higher risk of cancer than the general population...” Firefighters are exposed to obvious smoke and fire but also invisible toxins.  Those toxins can cling to gear, uniforms, skin and be brought back to the station.  

“If only we knew then what we know now... maybe things would be different,” Baker said. 

For new fire recruits, they may be. 

Eleven stations have either begun or are set to be renovated and five new ones will be built or already have started being built.

“It will have fresh air. It will have enough space and it will have modern technology so that our firefighters can work out in a safe environment,” Gulotta said. 

Some of the upgrades include improved ventilation systems, more showers and individual-use bathrooms, and space away from living areas to store firefighting gear.

“It will reduce exposure and hopefully prevent firefighters from getting debilitating illnesses like cancer that can be life-changing,” Baker said. 

Emergency vehicles at Station 9 have been leaving through the back door.  

“Responding out of the back of a fire station is not typical for a fire department so the neighbors are not expecting emergency response vehicles on this side street,” Gulotta said. 

That has been set to change as well.  

“Our new fire station is going to be designed so that all the fire department vehicles can respond out through the main driveway of the building,” Gulotta said. 

In addition, a new washing area is expected to be built, so firefighters don't have to bring dirty uniforms into their family's home to be cleaned.

  These changes in our fire stations that the city, the department and our community are investing in for our firefighter's health and safety is priceless,” Baker said. 

For younger firefighters like Daniel Dadashiewicz, the changes may save lives.  

"It's such a great feeling to know that the city and the people that we serve have our backs,” Dadashiewicz said. 

Back in 2017 Tucson voters approved a 5-year half-cent sales tax to pay for road repairs and public safety needs.   

The fire department is expected to receive $75-million by the end of 2022.  

Throughout her interview with the News 4 Tucson Investigators, Baker shared a letter she wrote in preparation for this story, to express her feelings about the department and her late wife.

In partnership with the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN) designated January as Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-yuXzIDzPE&feature=emb_logo

On its website, FCSN said the intention is, "to provide firefighters the necessary tools and guidance to develop life-saving protocols for cancer prevention and to support those with a cancer diagnosis within their departments."

You can help spread awareness and join the conversation on social media by using the hashtags #FFCancerMonth #FightFFCancer.

If you have a story you’d like us to look into email us at investigators@kvoa.com or call our tip line at 955-4444.

Alexis Berdine

Alexis Berdine is an Investigative Multi-Media Journalist at KVOA.

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