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Fragile Superheroes

Fireproof! …on the outside

Had a fire at my house once. House didn’t burn down (mostly). Thank stuff. What caught fire was the gross insulation around the water heater. It left most of the walls and floors and things intact. The smoke from that thing, though: they could have caught it and used it as a weapon. You could practically chew it, it was so thick, but if you did you’d be cut in half. It was the most acrid worm of poison, belching out of every door and window for hours.

The firemen fixed it. Wrapped in their deepness of armor, they just walked through that wall of poison, put the fire out, and we moved on with our lives.

I remember thinking, “I’m glad it wasn’t anything dangerous, like a REAL fire. Those dudes have enough to deal with. I’m glad it was just smoke. They’re well protected against smoke.”

Turns out not so much. They would have been safer in a more straight-forward fire, because THAT is the hazard they’re most prepared to deal with.

Know what they’re less prepared for than just fire?

The things we learn…

My office is on fire!

Most of us have a story like mine, I think. Firefighters tend to be that group who live up to their reputation. They have made it their profession to override the natural human fear of fire in the pursuit of the wellbeing of the rest of us. And a lot of these people don’t even get paid. A lot of them are volunteers, and still determined to rush into fires to rescue the rest of us. Nothing but respect for these crazy people and their improbable choices.

Jeff Rountree is like you and me: he knows and respects some firefighters.

One of them, a friend of his, died at forty-four. A story too common among firefighters. It is a job not without risks.

Thing about Jeff Rountree’s friend, though. This friend did die from the risks of fighting fires, but he didn’t die from heat or suffocation or from a building falling on him. Those are dangerous things, but those are things that firefighters can prepare and train for. They’re risks, but they have mitigating tools.

Jeff’s friend died of cancer. That abrupt. That upsetting. No movie climax here. Just life and expectations crashing into each other.

Because here’s the thing: our houses are made of plastic. We all know this to some extent. Look around you for a few seconds and think about the stuff around you that would work in the firepit. I’ll wait.

Hard, isn’t it? Most of the stuff in your house won’t burn clean. It’ll either melt, or you know it’ll be gross if it burns, or it’s been treated to be fire-resistant. Which means that if your house DOES have the bad luck of catching on fire, it becomes a hotbox of the worst kinds of poisons we’ve built our world out of.

That is a firefighter’s office

As with any other professional, your average firefighter is well-prepared to deal with most of what their job throws at them.

As with any other professional, your average firefighter is well-prepared to deal with most of what their job throws at them. Yes, they’re dealing with low-air, high-fire environments, but they’ve got the right stuff to work with that. You’ve seen them. They’re practically wearing space suits. They’re never “safe” at work, but they’re prepared. They have the suits to protect them from a lot of heat and they have the training to make choices that pick up where their equipment leaves off.

A choice they can never make is whether or not they need to breathe. They need to breathe.

Like you do at your job, firefighters have to deal with the pace of chance of technology. Forty, fifty years ago, your house was made of a lot more wood and a bit less plastic than it is today. Firefighters wear a piece of equipment to filter smoke and other particles of ick out of the air they breathe in. These hoods did all right protecting firefighters forty years ago, but a lot changes in forty years. The carcinogenic plastics that go into our homes has gone wild, for one thing. Fire is always dangerous, but the smoke from a house fire is more poisonous than it’s ever been. Their old hoods don’t filter out the smallest particulates, especially when they get wet. Not sure if you’ve noticed it, but getting things wet is one of the things firefighters like to do. Their hoods are letting through the worst of the gross junk your burning stuff releases.

In the same way that you have to deal with budgetary concerns at your job, firefighters do too. Your office can’t always afford to upgrade your equipment, even if it’s demonstrably better equipment that makes you better at your job. It’s just not in the budget.

Firefighters have the same issue. Only worse, because about seventy percent of firefighters are volunteers, and THEY have to buy their own equipment. Cool, right? Self-empowerment! Because there is a new piece of equipment that works better. There are firefighter hoods that filter out far more carcinogenic particulates than the old hoods do.

Except the new piece of equipment costs three times as much as the old one.

And your old one has been working fine so far, so… Eh. Shrug and move on.

Hoods for Heroes

Jeff Rountree created a non-profit called Hoods for Heroes. Their function is twofold:

  1. They provide grants to fire departments for the purpose of buying the new kind of hood. The new hoods cost three times more than the old ones, and fire departments never have any money. They are a notoriously under-funded bunch of superheroes. They’re like Peter Parker but with the job demands and the options for superpowers of Batman. Not a great combination.

  2. Education. It turns out that it’s not the easiest thing in the world to convince one of the bravest (some would say nutsest) segment of the population that a slight change in wardrobe will protect them from invisible forces that MAY hurt them, especially when that great big dragon-face of a house is standing right there already.

You live in a potential poison-breathing dragon—chew on that for a minute

The sad fact is there is a higher rate of certain cancers in firefighters relative to the rest of the population. It’s their job to walk into your house, save your cat, save YOU, and survive to do it again later. Between training and lots of layers of armor, they’re pretty good at fighting dragons. Firefighters are pretty good at walking through an inferno unscathed.

The rough part comes later, when the breath of a hundred plastic-eating dragons has poisoned them. No training in the world helps with cancer.

Jeff Rountree started Hoods for Heroes, because he wants to help firefighters so that they can worry about their jobs, not whether or not it’s safe to breathe.

Final Note:

I’ve talked a lot about firefighters and their armor.

Imagine a firefighter.

Now take away the armor, but none of the problems.

There are a lot of countries out there where THAT’S reality.

Hoods for Heroes can’t fix that, but they can help.

Just a thought.


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