Bethlehem Fire aims to use safer PFAS-free foam by end of 2024, chief says
BETHLEHEM, Pa. — By the end of 2024, Bethlehem’s fire department could switch to a more environmentally friendly firefighting foam for use in seven of its trucks.
It also will remove many risks to firefighters who use it, rather than traditional foam that has been liked to health problems.
Fire Chief Warren Achey said Thursday that the city's fire force, just like other departments across the state and nation, has deployed an aqueous film forming foam solution for fires on rare occasions when water just won’t do the trick.
However, that foam contains cancer-causing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS.
“We don’t want our firefighters to be exposed to it, any of our personnel — our mechanics when they’re working on the vehicles. And then if we do use it, the potential’s there that we could contaminate someone’s private property.”Bethlehem Fire Chief Warren Achey
PFAS are manmade “forever chemicals” that since the mid-20th century has been found in everyday products, including cookware, clothes and can even make firefighting foam work better, as reported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Two of the materials, perfluoroctane acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, have been seen in industry-standard firefighting foam, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.
“We don’t want our firefighters to be exposed to it, any of our personnel — our mechanics when they’re working on the vehicles,” Achey said.
“And then if we do use it, the potential’s there that we could contaminate someone’s private property.”
Why use foam instead of water?
Achey said he’s rarely seen foam deployed in his 32 years with the Bethlehem fire force, referencing uses he’s seen in hydrocarbon fires involving flammable liquids that wouldn’t go out with water.
The foam also could be used to handle hazmat situations, chemical fires, suppress vapors and cool liquids, the chief said.
Fires can break out on any number of materials, including wood, paper, trash, gasoline, oil, wiring, combustible metals and alloys, as well as cooking oils and fats.
“For regular fires, we don’t necessarily do that. We have plenty of water. We have a hydrant, I believe, every 1,000 feet in the city of Bethlehem here.”Bethlehem Fire Chief Warren Achey
“For regular fires, we don’t necessarily do that,” Achey said. “We have plenty of water. We have a hydrant, I believe, every 1,000 feet in the city of Bethlehem here.”
He said that after it's used, the material basically sits and bubbles, where rainfall could wash it down nearby storm sewers.
The incoming year's budget, foam disposal
Page 166 of the city’s 2024 proposed budget lists $30,000 planned to replace the old foam and other hazmat supplies, which could involve a $20,000 Northampton County public safety grant and a match of $10,000 from Bethlehem.
Officials have submitted that grant application, Achey said.
“We’ve used them for years and years,” Achey said. “Now, new products are just coming out.
“The military has switched over from the old firefighting foam to more environmentally friendly [options], and I intend, through a few sources of funding, to do the same thing for the fire department here in the city of Bethlehem.”
The chief said there are other grant opportunities available to secure the funding, including one option through the state Fire Marshal’s Office.
“The military has switched over from the old firefighting foam to more environmentally friendly [options], and I intend, through a few sources of funding, to do the same thing for the fire department here in the city of Bethlehem.”Bethlehem Fire Chief Warren Achey
Disposing of the “several hundred gallons” of foam across seven department trucks and replacing it with the newer form will be pricey, Achey said.
"I hope to have it done by the end of the year," he said.
The department would have to send each truck on separate trips to Glick Fire Equipment Co. in Lansdale, Montgomery County, to have the foam offloaded and the onboard deployment systems tweaked and flushed out before handling the newer, thicker solution.
Achey said he didn’t have the exact costs or the current quote in hand, but estimated the rates at $1,000 per truck just for the servicing and upwards of $4,000 to safely dispose of the old foam.
A 'proactive' outlook
Councilwoman Rachel Leon said the foam change is “proactive” of the fire department in getting ahead of the many potentially dangerous side effects of the profession.
“AFFF is something that really affects people long term, and it builds up in their systems, especially if they’re training with it or they’re dealing with it on a daily basis,” Leon said.
“So it’s really, really, really good to know that you guys are making that change, keeping your people safe, our drinking water safe and our environment safe.”
Some political moves in Harrisburg are taking place regarding the foam, as the Firefighting Foam Management Act passed the state Senate in March but appears to have been referred to the House Veteran Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee.
In the water, foam — and the fire gear
Luis Jimenez, Bethlehem firefighters union vice president with Local 735, said PFAS are not only in the fire foam, but also built into the department’s “bunker” gear, including pants, jacket, gloves, hoods and more.
He said his time in the fire academy involved learning to throw the whole spread of equipment on for every call. But times have changed since then, especially since the department was enlightened a few years ago on the synthetic materials in their equipment.
“The industry’s saying, ‘Don’t put your gear on unless you absolutely have to,’” Jimenez said. “So a lot of us are being more mindful.”
“We have to really think about it because even if we’re sitting in our gear, that stuff is coming and getting into our skin. And it’s bad enough that the byproducts of fire get into our system no matter how well protected we are.”Bethlehem firefighter and Local 735 Vice President Luis Jimenez
The personal protective equipment is essentially the industry standard, Jimenez said.
“We have to really think about it because even if we’re sitting in our gear, that stuff is coming and getting into our skin,” Jimenez said. “And it’s bad enough that the byproducts of fire get into our system no matter how well protected we are.
“This is our city, this is our job, we love what we do. We just want to be able to do it safely.”
What's being done about the dangers?
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has reported that firefighters face a 9% increase in cancer and a 14% jump in cancer-related deaths, all as part of the occupation.
The International Association of Fire Fighters has reported that common “turnout” gear includes PFAS to make fire force PPE resilient to both water and oil.
Certain restrictions surrounding a light degradation resistance test of “moisture barrier materials” are keeping other safer options from the market, according to IAFF.
That's also ipart of the 1971 standards from the National Fire Protection Association.
“There is currently no turnout gear which is PFAS-free on the market."The International Association of Fire Fighters
“There is currently no turnout gear which is PFAS-free on the market,” an IAFF frequently asked questions section reads on its website.
In 2022, IAFF and the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association announced moves to educate staff on these risks and put forward potential next-step solutions.
This year, it was announced that IAFF teamed up with three national law firms to help put an end to firefighter cancer and PFAS use in industry equipment.