Regular readers of this news feature know that asbestos exposure is yet another hazard faced by fire fighters in the line of duty. It shouldn’t happen in a routine training exercise. However, that is exactly what has been happening to rookie and senior firemen in the city of Everett, Washington, about 25 miles north of Seattle. In the course of training exercises, firemen generally practice the various necessary skills on old houses and buildings owned by the city. These exercises include activities such as cutting through roofs and ceilings and breaking through walls in order to provide ventilation for smoke and other toxic fumes as well as to create escape routes for possible victims. Older homes and buildings frequently contain asbestos materials.
However, the Everett Fire Department had no system in place for confirming the existence of asbestos in such buildings and notifying its personnel. This was the conclusion of a hygiene consultant with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industry. The consultant also concluded that although the problem was first reported last summer, it has been an ongoing problem–meaning that virtually every member of the Everett Fire Department has suffered from some degree of asbestos exposure. As a result of the report, the municipal government has ordered a moratorium on such training exercises while policies are updated and firemen and women receive additional training on asbestos safety issues. A city spokesperson was quoted as saying “…we don’t want this to happen again.” The spokesperson also expressed confusion on part of city council as to how such a situation could have come to pass in the first place.
Bob Downey, who is president of the Everett Firefighters Union, was also understandably distressed over the situation: “We all thought we were safe, and we weren’t… We weren’t wearing our breathing apparatus or anything and we were creating dust clouds. People are worried they brought it home to their families. It turns out we’ve been doing this all along.” He also implied negligence on part of the city, saying that there were no warnings about the asbestos danger. “When you go to a fire, you assume it’s there, so you wear your mask… we assumed they’d taken care of it. They sent us to do our job and we did it.”