Bill Killen

Bill Killen

The Hawkins County Ad Hoc Committee that will recommend how to disperse COVID funds from the State of TN voted 5 to 2 last week not to provide funds to the volunteer fire departments, but instead voted to spend all the state funds for handheld radios.

Throughout the county volunteer fire departments self-contained breathing apparatus and personal protective equipment currently in service in the county’s volunteer fire departments is old or even obsolete and needs to be replaced or updated to include PASS devices.

A PASS device (Personal Alert Safety System) also known as a Distress Signal Unit (DSU) or ADSU (Automatic Distress Signal Unit), is a personal safety device used primarily by firefighters entering a hazardous or Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health (IDLH) environment such as a burning building.

Why is this equipment so important?

The Respiratory Protection standard (1910 Occupational Safety and Health Standard 1910.134) specifically provides that firefighters entering an immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) atmosphere must wear a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).

In a May 4, 1988, letter to Congress, Assistant Secretary of Labor John A. Pendergrass wrote: “Structural firefighting is one of the most dangerous jobs known to man; their work environment is often completely out of control and firefighters are called in to bring it under control and to a safe conclusion. OSHA believes that all firefighters who do interior structural firefighting need to be properly trained to do their job safely. They need the proper tools and equipment and protective clothing to do this job safely. All firefighters, including volunteers, need to understand the hazards of firefighting and how it can be done safely to minimize the risks involved. Their well-being depends on it.”

UT’s Municipal Technical Advisory Service December 2000 Technical Bulletin, “Two .. In, Two .. Out and the OSHA Respiratory Protection Standard” stated: “The new respiratory protection standard adopted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is in full effect in Tennessee. These regulations are commonly called the “two-in, two-out” rule.

However, these standards are much more comprehensive than just one regulation. In fact, two-in, two-out is only part of the total respiratory protection program. It doesn’t just affect fire department personnel, but also the entire emergency response community and many others who may be required to wear respirator to perform their job.

The old standard was adopted in 1971 and has been in effect until replaced by this new standard in 1998. The new regulation’s purpose is to set minimal levels of protection for personnel who must operate in an environment that may contain atmospheric inhalation hazards.”

What is the No. 1 cause of death for firefighters?

A 2017 research study by the International Association of Firefighters reported cancer is the disease that causes the most death among firefighters, with a 61% rate of career line-of-duty deaths among firefighters between 2002 and 2017 being caused by cancer.

“The reason why cancer has become such a frequently occurring disease among our firefighters today is not farfetched from the fact that landed properties today are built with more synthetic materials and furnished with almost everything synthetic. Thus, when there is a fire outbreak situation, properties do not only burn faster and hotter, they also release more toxic gasses into the atmosphere.

These toxic materials that are being emitted tend to stick on the uniforms of the firefighters, and from there it can easily transfer to their skin. More, during the process of firefighting, firefighters are very likely to breathe in these toxic gases also, all increasing their chances of contracting cancer.” -Herrman & Herrman, P.L.L.C. April 4, 2020

Two deceased prominent Hawkins County fire service leaders, Persia Fire Chief Chili Sanders and Hawkins County Rescue Squad Captain Donnie Hawkins died of cancer within the last few years. The family of Fire Chief Chili Sanders requested memorial contributions may be made for “A special project for fire and rescue would be to purchase SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) to protect local heroes.”

Hawkins County volunteer personnel engaged in firefighting operations do so in an environment that may contain atmospheric inhalation hazards and therefor funding for SCBA, and PPE should take priority over handheld radios.

Radio communications is also very important, but handheld radios do not trump firefighter safety, especially when the real communications problem is that there simply are not enough tower transmission sites to properly cover the county. Radio waves don’t go thru mountains.

It would be a crying shame to deny our volunteer fire fighters who risk their lives for no pay the equipment to protect them especially if this portable radio purchase fails to solve the communications network problem. Then we will have spent all our available grant funding with none left for new towers or firefighter safety equipment. We’ll be no further ahead than when we started — except out of money for the proper fix.

Would you enter a burning building with obsolete equipment supposed to keep you safe? Would you do that for free? Yet, we ask our volunteer firemen to do that every day.

Bill Killen is a retired NASA and US Navy firefighter who is currently president of the Hawkins County Volunteer Firefighters Association. You can email him at: