Volunteer fire department uses creativity to save money and reduce cancer risk

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ALAMANCE COUNTY, N.C. -- Firefighters put their lives on the line to save us and our property. But for fire crews, the danger continues even after the flames are out.

Recent reports indicate that when you compare the general population to firefighters, firefighters face a higher cancer risk. Edward Lipscomb is the fire chief for the Altamahaw Ossipee Volunteer Fire Department. He explained why firemen are fighting higher cancer rates.

"There are cancer-causing materials that are in building materials now, in furniture, in everyday household items," Lipscomb said.

Kyle Cook is the assistant chief for the Altamahaw Ossipee Volunteer Fire Department. He said turnout gear covered in soot is no longer a badge of honor for firemen.

"Dirty gear, I guess it made you look like a better firefighter. It's not that way anymore. It's the cleaner you can be," Cook said.

So about a year ago, Altamahaw Ossipee fire trucks began carrying decontamination kits. Each kit has a brush, soap and wipes firemen can use at the scene. When they get back to the fire station, firefighters clean their turnout gear for a second time. For the Altamahaw Ossippee Volunteer Fire Department, that meant taking your gear to a firehouse with a washing machine or hoping a local business could clean your gear and get it back to you quickly.

"It could be three to five days before we get the gear back," Lipscomb said. "We don't have two sets of gear. We can't be without gear for that length of time."

Lipscomb knew it was time for his fire station to have its own washing machine. But for a volunteer fire department, money is tight. Plus competing for grant money is getting tougher. The Altamahaw Ossipee Volunteer Fire Department turned to the community for help. It took nearly a year for them to raise $11,000 to buy and install a washing machine.

"It does make things safer for the people that are here," Lipscomb said. "As chief of the fire department, I have to make things better for the people here health-wise and safety-wise."

Lipscomb now had another problem, how do you dry pants, coats, boots and gloves without spending thousands of dollars. After searching the internet, Lipscomb built his own dryer out of PVC pipes. The pipes are arranged like a coat closet that is then connected to a blower.

"We can dry a set in about four to six hours," Lipscomb continued. "We looked at a gear drying cabinet and those things are really pricey, in the $8,000 to $10,000 range. We built a gear drying rack that does the same thing for around $400."

Cook is grateful that the Altamahaw Ossipee Volunteer Fire Department is taking steps to reduce firefighters' cancer risk.

"You don't want to take this stuff home to your family," Cook said. "If we wear the same clothes home that were inside of a structure fire, we could possibly expose our family to the same carcinogens that we were exposed to. So it's very important to keep us clean."

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