New study identifies concerns over firefighters' masks

HANOVER, VA (WWBT) - A new study shows that facemasks may to blame for a number of recent deaths.  A program that investigates firefighter fatalities noticed the disturbing pattern, which is raising concerns locally and nationally.

A facepiece lens is part of a firefighters' overall uniform to protect against smoke and fire. The problem is it's not always working.

Hanover County Fire and EMS Battalion Chief Willie Jones showed us four examples of lenses that have clearly had some problems.  In these cases, no one was hurt.  Jones says the damage was likely the result of getting too close or staying near a fire too long.

Firefighters have been using facemasks like these since the early 1980s. The reason that it's become an issue now though is because the rest of their has gotten better since then.

Jones says, "We are going into places quicker and faster, and we are finding that they are starting to fail a little bit."

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has a program that investigates firefighter fatalities with the goal of learning lessons to prevent future deaths.  It was that program that zeroed in on the pattern.

Dawn Castillo with The Firefighter Fatalities Investigation and Prevention Program says, "We are very thrilled that our investigation program was able to identify this potential issue, to foster additional research and then have an industry based effort to confirm what the issues were, and then to ultimately make changes to improve the safety of firefighters."

Changing the standard could lead to a cost concern for fire departments.  New lenses could be much more expensive, but authorities we spoke with say safety is priceless.

Jones says, "We may even go back to sharing a mask. When I started in the department, you had three shifts, and all three people shared a mask. You cleaned it and made sure it was ready for service and everything else, so rather than buying 700 masks as we would here, you may only have 150."

As national organizations continue to study these lens, firefighters are expecting to see some changes as early as next year.

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