LAKELAND, Fla. — Working to protect those who protect us, Polk County just opened the first in a series of new firehouses designed with added safety in mind.
In recent years, there’s been a disturbing correlation between firefighting and certain cancers, and the new construction design is meant to address that. Station 23 is the first to be built, located along Kathleen Road.
“We owe it to them to limit and mitigate any possibility of being exposed to cancer,” Deputy Polk Administrator Joe Holman, Jr said.
Polk County is spending $68 million to build 17 new fire stations, all identically designed to help reduce exposure to carcinogens which have led to a disproportionate rate of cancer among firefighters.
“What we find is that that serial exposure to carcinogens is what is causing firefighters trouble throughout their careers and into retirement,” Polk Fire Rescue Chief Robert Weech said. “And we’ve taken specific steps to eliminate that.”
Unlike older facilities where firefighters and paramedics would exercise right next to engine exhaust and hazmat gear, the new buildings have a separate weight room. Ice machines have been moved away from diesel fumes. And now there’s a separate room for contaminated gear away from living and dining areas.
The new firehouses are also separated into color-coded zones — red, yellow and green — with each color designating a level of safety.
By using the same design for each of the new firehouses, the county is also saving about $80,000 on each building. That’s more than $1 million, which can be spent on other upgrades and equipment.
“The fact that the county is looking to keep us healthy, I can’t thank enough,” said Engineer Paramedic Tom Konze, who’s been with Polk Fire Rescue for 13 years. “And my family can’t thank them enough.”
Former President Donald Trump signed the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act during his administration to better track the correlation between firefighters.
In 2019, Florida also joined 43 other states to pass a firefighter presumptive cancer law, acknowledging the risk and mandating employer-funded cancer benefits for firefighters.
So, what about the firehouses already built?
Polk County says it’s applying the same standards to their existing stations where they can by moving exercise equipment out of the engine bays and, where possible, moving firefighter gear into areas farther away from where workers eat and sleep.
“You’re not going to have a new station,” said Holman, “But they are going to have a safe place where they can do what they need to do.”
“We ask you to put yourself in harm’s way. We do that on an everyday basis. That’s what the community expects. And that’s what we deliver,” Weech said. “But when the emergency is over, we deserve, they deserve - for us to do the right things to protect them in all cases.”