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Catching Up With The St. Louis Fire Department

(Feb. 19, 2019) St. Louis Fire Department Chief Dennis Jenkerson (left) and Capt. Garon Mosby (right) touched on the department's various initiatives as well as challenges ahead.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh discussed the current state of the St. Louis Fire Department, touching on various recent initiatives as well as challenges ahead. Joining him for the conversation were Chief Dennis Jenkerson and Capt. Garon Mosby.

Among the topics discussed was the potential city-county merger. Under the Better Together proposal, the fire departments in St. Louis and St. Louis County would not be consolidated.

Jenkerson said that while it would be ideal to have “one big fire service,” the 42 fire departments in the region “are pretty coordinated” already.

“We do make a concerted effort to look at each other's operating procedures and guidelines and see what we can improve. And we've been doing this for years; all the fire departments in the area have signed a mutual-aid agreement,” he added.

That agreement entails cooperation between neighboring districts, with firefighters in one district assisting with the response to fire issues close to their particular district – and vice versa.”

In addition to putting out fires and rescuing cats from trees, as commonly seen on television, fire departments are responsible for a number of other duties. From answering medical calls to taking care of car accidents, Mosby explained that there are “so many different circumstances where people just don't know who to call [when] it's not a law-enforcement matter. It's in the middle of the night [where] the fire department often comes out and takes care of whatever it is.”

He gave an example of when his department responded to fixing a thermostat in a senior living home at 3 a.m.

“This is not just here in St. Louis,” Mosby said. “It's what the fire services [do] around the world; we fit in those little gaps, where you don't know who to call.”

But there are occasions where firefighters have to deal with the harmful effects that come from their jobs – such as exposure to hazardous material, leading to significantly higher cancer rates. That challenge is among Jenkerson’s top concerns.

“I can honestly say that lung cancers isn't high on the list,” he said, stating that firefighters are much more aware of the dangers of inhaling smoke and wear the proper breathing masks. But cancers such as brain and gastrointestinal cancers top the list.

Jenkerson added that buildings are often now more dangerous to deal with due to manmade construction materials, such as plastic.

“[Those materials], when they burn, are carcinogens, and we're seeing that now affect the health of the firefighters,” he said.

A part of increasing awareness about the high-risk potential of being exposed to hazardous materials is getting safer fire gear and staying away from debris if possible. But Jenkerson said that comes with changing the culture of how “[firefighters] handle our clothing, our coats, our helmets, our gloves.”

Mosby agreed and added that changing that fire-service culture is challenging.

“[When] you watch a movie … the dirty firefighter coming out of the building [is] everyone's heroic figure that we're after,” he said. “And the gear … the cool thing was to have a dirty helmet. Well, not anymore. We don't want to see your war wound or your battles on your helmet or your coat – we have to stay clean.”

Listen to the full discussion to hear more:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Jon Lewis give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
Lara is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.