A well-trained firefighter is taught, first and foremost, to respect a fire. He/she is well educated in the important ins and outs of fighting a blaze. Safety is number one, firefighters are told, though we are all familiar with stories about hero firefighters who defy those flames to save a trapped individual or perhaps even a family dog or cat.
It’s obvious that firefighters put their lives on the line every day. Fire and smoke carry with them many dangers and both can cause injury or death in an instant.
What the general public might not know, however, is that another less-obvious danger lurks inside thousands of buildings throughout the U.S., and when those buildings burn, firefighters face yet another ominous hazard…asbestos is a hidden danger for firefighters.
Asbestos was used widely in the construction of all types of buildings during the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, especially in commercial buildings but also in homes.
The toxic mineral was long heralded for its amazing heat and fire resistance as well as its durability, so manufacturers used it in thousands of products. In homes, offices, and factories, asbestos may be found in floor and ceiling tiles, drywall, attic insulation, and shingles, or perhaps wrapped around pipes, boilers, and electrical wiring.
When asbestos is in new or good condition and has not been disturbed, it does not generally present a health concern. But if a building containing asbestos is burning, firefighters need to be sure they are protected from inhaling the toxic fibers that will undoubtedly circulate through the air. It is this dust that can eventually cause mesothelioma cancer to develop.
That’s why fire departments should demand the use of a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), essential for firefighter safety, especially when older buildings are involved. Not only should the gear be worn during fire suppression – the actual fighting of the fire, but also during after-fire overhaul and investigation when asbestos may be present in the rubble and debris that remain behind after a blaze.
Quite simply, the SCBA will provide breathable air to the firefighter and will not permit asbestos fibers or dust to enter the body through the nose or mouth. When a firefighter has completed his duties at an asbestos-containing building, the SCBA should be thoroughly cleaned.
Furthermore, the equipment should be removed at the scene of the blaze or investigation so that fibers do not spread to other locations and other individuals.
Unfortunately, there have been cases where these precautions were not followed and firefighters were exposed to friable asbestos. For example, a few years ago, firefighters in Everett, Washington filed suit against the city for exposing them to asbestos via old homes used for training exercises.
The firefighters had been told that the buildings were asbestos-free and, as a result, will now live with the possibility that they inhaled toxic dust while training for their profession.
If you or a family member has served as a firefighter, paid or volunteer, and were exposed to asbestos materials on the job, take time to learn about your legal rights today. Consult an experienced attorney to review your options.