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Clayton Fire Company honored with national safety award

Ben Mace
Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times
At the presentation of the Paul Sarbanes National Firefighter Safety Award to the Clayton Fire Company Oct. 28 are, from left, Gov. John Carney, Clayton Fire Chief Alex Carrow, Fire Company President Kevin Wilson, William Webb, executive director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute; Steve Austin, past director of the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters Association, and Ron Siarnicki, executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

The fire company from a small town in Delaware is receiving national attention.

Clayton Fire Company was one of only three in the United States to win the 2020 Paul Sarbanes National Firefighter Safety Award.

The award is named after the former U.S. senator from Maryland for his efforts to help with funding and awareness of the needs of firefighters. The other two fire companies honored were in Prince Georges County, Maryland, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Clayton’s award was presented Oct. 28 at a ceremony at the Clayton Fire Hall attended by Gov. John Carney, Sen. Bruce Ennis, Rep. Bill Carson and officials from national firefighting safety organizations.

Normally, award winners are recognized in front of about 2,000 people in Washington, D.C., at the Congressional Fire Services Institute Annual Meeting, but that event was canceled due to the coronavirus.

Clayton was honored for taking steps to prevent cancer among members and members’ families, said William Webb, executive director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute.

“They’ve done a lot to address cancer in the fire service both with cultural changes and changes at the fire station,” said Webb. “One of the greatest threats to firefighters, if not the greatest threat, is cancer. The Clayton Fire Company is making cancer awareness and prevention a top priority.”

Clayton Fire Chief Alex Carrow said the fire company is honored to receive the award, but the improvements weren’t made with the award in mind.

“Our most valuable asset is our members, and their health, well-being and safety are paramount,” Carrow said.

What the fire company did

With a $5,500 grant from Delmarva Power, the company purchased 90 particulate hoods, which fit over a firefighter’s head sort of like a ski mask.

Carrow said the hoods have three layers of filtration to keep out potentially cancer-causing particles from smoke, dust and debris. The firefighters used hoods before, but the material wasn’t as technologically advanced, he said.

Fire company member Julie Reed works for Delmarva Power and led the grant application process.

Clayton Fire Chief Alex Carrow displays one of the new particulate hoods, which fit over a firefighter’s head, sort of like a ski mask, to help filter out potentially cancer-causing particles. Firefighters used hoods before, but the material wasn't as technologically advanced.

To more thoroughly clean those hoods along with coats, pants and gloves, the fire company bought a heavy-duty washing machine called an “extractor,” made to extract potentially cancer-causing particles from gear worn by firefighters and other professions exposed to smoke, dust and debris. The company also bought a heavy-duty dryer. The total cost was about $22,000 from fire company funds.

In the firehouse addition built several years ago, the company included a shower room so firefighters could wash off after responding to an emergency.

Clayton Fire Company President Kevin Wilson said the new equipment and shower room don’t just protect the firefighters, but also their family members because the firefighters aren’t bringing home potentially harmful particles.

“Things change through the years and the focus on cancer is one them. We want to protect our members and send them home clean so they don’t endanger their family,” Wilson said.

The fire company is also working with a hospital and a university on preventing cancer in firefighters.

Wilson talked with a doctor at Bayhealth about what firefighters can do to prevent cancer and about testing members.

“Then I got an email from the University of Miami, looking for fire companies for a roundtable discussion about cancer in firefighters,” said Wilson.

He and other members helped the university set up meetings with firefighters from Delaware and surrounding states.

“The next phase is baseline testing of firefighters, and Clayton is spearheading that in Delaware,” Wilson said.

Growing emphasis on cancer prevention

Webb, from the Congressional Fire Services Institute, said while safety has always been a priority for fire companies, there has been a “heightened interest” in ways to prevent cancer after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and subsequent health problems suffered by first responders in New York City from the smoke, dust and debris.

He said what the Clayton Fire Company has done “embodies the goal that every fighter returns home safely after every call.”

Webb said the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters Association has a reputation with firefighting agencies throughout the country for developing initiatives to improve safety.

“The Clayton Fire Company exemplifies this kind of leadership,” he said.

Ron Siarnicki, executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, explained that the foundation initially focused on preventing vehicle accidents, buildings collapsing and heart attacks, but now cancer is a primary focus as well.

“We learned, mostly after 9/11, about carcinogens firefighters are exposed to and how dangerous temporary exposure can be, not just the cumulative effects over time,” Siarnicki said.

He was impressed with Clayton’s dedication to preventing cancer.

“When I heard about the innovations the Clayton Fire Company did, it was easy to see their efforts needed to be recognized,” Siarnicki said. “As a member of a smaller fire company myself, I know what it’s like to be in a volunteer organization but still having to keep up with the latest training and technology.”

Clayton Fire Company Past Chief Rodney Whalen, the company's first safety officer, stands next to the company's new "extractor," a heavy-duty washing machine designed to extract potentially cancer-causing smoke, dust and debris particles from firefighters' gear.

Leadership and ‘cultural change’

Wilson and Carrow credited Past Chief Rodney Whalen for his persistence in keeping the members focused on safety.

“I was our original safety officer,” said Whalen. “A lot of times when you try to improve safety, people give you a hard time, but you’re doing it for them.”

Whalen is a big fan of the new equipment that led to the national award.

“I wanted to get one [an extractor] 20 years ago,” said Whalen. “I’ve been pushing for it for a long time. When we built the addition, I said, ‘Please make a room for a new washing machine and an exercise room.’ Those are things we need for the health of our members.”

Whalen said the company being recognized for safety at the national level “means a lot.”

“It’s an honor for all of us,” he said.

Carrow and Wilson said teamwork has led to continuous improvements at the fire company.

“We’re putting the equipment out there but it takes a cultural change for the whole company to implement it, and we’ve gotten a buy-in from the members to make it successful,” Carrow said.

Wilson said, “The fire company isn’t about the big, shiny red things. First and foremost, it’s about taking care of our people, our members, because without them we can’t take care of the public.”

Tributes from state leaders

At the award ceremony Oct. 28, Gov. Carney said, “When you think about what firefighters do, it’s incredibly selfless. They follow safety guidelines but they’re not usually thinking about themselves. They’re thinking about helping others.”

He congratulated the Clayton Fire Company for attaining the national honor.

“This recognition is a big deal,” Carney said. “It would have normally been presented in front of the Congressional Caucus and about 2,000 or more firefighters from across the country. It’s a shame we can't share this in front of them. This award reflects the professionalism and the focus on safety of the fire company.”

In presenting a tribute to the fire company, he thanked the past and present members for their dedication and commitment to helping others.

Sen. Bruce Ennis and Rep. Bill Carson presented tributes from the Senate and House to the fire company, congratulating the members for the efforts which earned the national award and for their everyday sacrifices to serve the community.