Last year, the Osakis Fire Department went on 47 calls. Each time, whether it was an actual fire or not, firefighters were required to wear their turnout gear.
The department has an older-style washing machine to clean the gear, but those types of machines just don't cut it anymore, according to State Fire Marshal Bruce West.
The Osakis Fire Department, along with 72 other departments in the state including Garfield and Leaf Valley, received grant money to purchase mechanical turnout gear washers and/or dryers.
The State Fire Marshal Division of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety awarded $600,000 in grants to fire departments across the state. Some departments received money to purchase washers, dryers or both.
Osakis Fire Chief Travis Middendorf said that his department received a grant to purchase both a washer and dryer. They were ordered before Christmas, and it could take up to 12 weeks before they receive the equipment.
When he heard that grant money was available, Middendorf said he applied for it right away.
"We have an old washer, but when money became available, I thought, 'Let's do this.' " he said.
The Osakis Fire Department has 20 firefighters and serves a population of nearly 5,000.
Studies show that firefighters are exposed to carcinogens during fires and are further exposed via soiled turnout gear. Minnesota fire departments have implemented turnout gear decontamination procedures in recent years to reduce firefighter exposure to toxic combustion byproducts. Health problems associated with exposure to these byproducts include lung disease, chronic bronchitis and cancer, according to a press release from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
The International Association of Firefighters estimates that roughly 60 percent of career firefighters will die from cancer. Firefighters are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than the general public. And by the age 60, twice as many firefighters die from cancer than heart attacks, the biggest killer among most Americans.
"Minnesota firefighters put their lives on the line to save others. There is no reason they should further risk their lives when they return to their stations and go home to their families," said West. "This equipment is necessary to ensure the safety of Minnesota firefighters."
Mechanical turnout gear washers and dryers are the most effective and efficient way to clean gear after a fire, but that equipment is often too expensive for fire departments to purchase on their own. Since 2015, 145 Minnesota fire departments have received approximately $1.1 million in grants to purchase new washer and dryers. The grants were funded by the Minnesota Fire Safety Account.
Gear never washed
Leaf Valley Fire Chief Scott Korkowski said as long as he has been on the department, which is 15 years, the firefighters have never washed their gear. The more than 20 firefighters average about 30 calls per year. Again, not all involve actual fires, but their gear nonetheless doesn't get washed.
"It was time something needed to be done," said Korkowski, added that the department had unsuccessfully applied for a different grant in the past.
However, he said the department also started purchasing new turnout gear at the end of last year. So far, the department has purchased 12 new sets of gear, which costs approximately $2,000 per suit.
The department was fortunate enough to have the support of the Leaf Valley Sportsmen Club, which donated $25,000 to the Leaf Valley Fire Department to pay for the new gear.
"They donated enough for us to purchase the 12," he said. "They really helped us out and we are so grateful."
Korkowski said his department received a grant to purchase only a washer.