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Moundsville Firefighter Helps Co-Workers Gear Up To Prevent Cancer

Photo by Alan Olson Moundsville firefighter Wendi Wentzell-Cuc is ready for action at the firehouse.

MOUNDSVILLE — With two cancer diagnoses in recent memory among members of the Moundsville Fire Department, a firefighter is seeking to upgrade the department’s gear to help prevent more.

Wendi Wentzell-Cuc, who has been with the department for a little over a year, also has family experience battling cancer. Although her father is a cancer survivor, several of her family members have lost their battles with the disease.

To help prevent undue exposure to carcinogenic substances on the job, Wentzell-Cuc has worked with the department and the city to bring more effective gear to the firefighters.

Last year, Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Kimple successfully fought cancer. In late 2017, fire chief Noel Clarke died at age 50 from cancer after serving as fire chief for 15 years.

“Since I’ve gotten hired here and started pushing the issue, we’ve gotten new particulate hoods, which are a newer version of the hoods we had been using while firefighting,” Wentzell-Cuc said. “They block out 99 percent of particles that could get on us and get in our skin. … Throat cancer and thyroid cancer are very common among firefighters, since a lot of stuff tends to get right here in the neck area. These come down to about chest-level, so it offers better protection.”

She said that the hood she previously used was “very thin.” She got a better one when she joined Moundsville’s fire department, but she still found herself searching for top-quality protection.

Additionally, Wentzell-Cuc says she is working with city council to provide firefighters with a new set of turnout gear. Currently, each firefighter has one set of gear that must be hand-washed after every fire response and left to dry, which she said can take up to 72 hours.

In the meantime, responding to a fire means that the protective gear worn by any given firefighter — and thus, the firefighter who owns that gear — is out of commission.

“We can still use the product on it, but that still takes you out of service, since that takes 72 hours to completely dry. If you have wet gear and go into a fire, you can burn yourself,” she said. “We’re trying to work with council and their budget to figure a way to get a second set of gear. It hasn’t been an issue so far, but we run the risk every time we have to go out there.

“You’re going to have to hope everything’s OK,” she added. “You can’t rely on hope. Fire doesn’t discriminate and happens whenever it wants. It’s not wise, in anyone’s interest, to just be like, ‘Well, it hasn’t happened, so we’re not going to address it.”

Fire chief Gary Brandon said each set of turnout gear runs about $4,000, but does include a jumpsuit for working with non-fire situations that still require protection, such as vehicle accidents.

In addition to the second set of gear, Wentzell-Cuc added that a gear washer — a specialized piece of equipment allowing faster treatment than hand-washing — is on the department’s radar, but due to a prohibitively high cost, the Fire Department is working with Lowe’s to attempt to secure a grant for the washer.

“It is very expensive, because it has to have an (extractor) … It has to be a certain speed for our gear. They’re heavy-duty, and coming in the thousands, teen-thousands. Kevin is working on a grant for that, but in the meantime, we have to do it the old-school way.”

In addition, Wentzell-Cuc said the department is working in other ways to ensure first responders are taking steps to mitigate exposure to carcinogens, including usage of Firewipes, a cleaning solution designed to effectively remove soot and other carcinogens present at the scene of fires, before a responding firefighter is able to get back and clean more thoroughly. At the fire department, she said, one shower is available for use by the five firefighters.

“We have a shower here, but that’s another issue. We have one shower for the five of us, and as much as I love them, it doesn’t work that way,” she joked.

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