The grieving mother of deceased firefighter Michael Kennedy, who perished in a Back Bay inferno earlier this year, urged city councilors Monday to support a simple method she said would curb cancer in the Boston Fire Department:
Equip each firehouse with a commercial washing machine.
Kathy Crosby-Bell said a washing machine at each of the city’s 34 firehouses would allow firefighters to quickly clean their gear after a blaze and remove dangerous carcinogens stuck to clothing, curbing the risk of getting the disease.
Currently, firefighters bag their gear and send it to headquarters for periodic cleaning, a process Crosby-Bell calls “cumbersome, inadequate, and outdated.” A machine in every firehouse would mean firefighters can clean their gear every week, Crosby-Bell and fire authorities said.
“This major health threat deserves urgent action on all our parts,’’ Crosby-Bell said at the hearing.
The washing machines were part of Crosby-Bell’s wider appeal to the council on behalf of the Last Call Foundation, an effort she launched in September to advance firefighter safety after the deaths of her son and Lieutenant Edward Walsh, who were trapped inside the blazing basement of a Back Bay brownstone March 26.
Investigators found that welders working in extremely windy conditions in the back of 296 Beacon St. caused sparks that spread quickly to the building next door, which was engulfed in flames.
Since then, Crosby-Bell said her grief, anger, and feelings of hopelessness are helping drive a mission for further protection for firefighters through education, research, and fund-raising. Her foundation has raised nearly $300,000, she said.
The group has targeted cancer and high rates of heart attacks among firefighters as major issues. It has also focused on the need for new technology to stop fire hoses from burning, which has been pointed to as a factor in the deadly March blaze. Her group also voiced support for newer firehouses.
Crosby-Bell said after the meeting that she had no idea something as simple as a washing machine in every firehouse could be so elusive.
“To be very honest, I didn’t know so much until after Michael died,’’ she said. “I was shocked to discover fire hoses could burn. I was shocked to discover the condition of the firehouses. I’m shocked they don’t have something so basic as a washer and dryer for their gear.”
Boston fire authorities estimate that members of the force are 2½ times more likely to get cancer than civilians. Contaminated protective gear can expose them to potentially life-threatening carcinogens, chemicals, and biological agents, fire authorities said.
Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn said that since his appointment in July, he has addressed the issue, establishing a safety and wellness division, alerting new recruits, and taking initial steps to launch a washer-dryer program throughout the department within the next two years. The department will need to retrofit each firehouse to install the appliances, a costly endeavor.
“I’ve buried way too many friends [who died] from cancer,’’ said Finn, mentioning other safety initiatives his department has undertaken, such as reducing heart attacks and shoulder injuries.
“Every time they respond to or go on a run for a fire — whether it is a car fire or an industrial fire — it’s all dangerous stuff,’’ Finn said. “We need to make sure their gear is adequately maintained and clean to knock down the carcinogens and toxins.”
Richard Paris, president of Boston Firefighters Local 718, said heart attacks and cancer have long been a scourge in the department.
“This just didn’t start,’’ Paris said. “Back in 1999, we had 12 active members die of heart attack or cancer.
“I’ve said too many eulogies at these firefighters’ funerals,” he said. “It’s time that we look into this and do something about it.”