EVERETT, WA. -- It started with one curious Snohomish County firefighter, but what he learned may end up exposing a dangerous threat to firefighters everywhere.
A study by the University of Washington, the first of its kind on a large scale, revealed MRSA, the drug resistant strain of staph infection, living in fires trucks, aid cars, station houses and in firefighters themselves.
Snohomish County Fire District One firefighter and paramedic Kevin Fetter suspected his crews were exposed to MRSA by sick patients, at accident scenes and in hospitals. But he didn't expect it would be transmitted right into the fire station living quarters.
"We found a little over four percent of the surfaces we tested were positive for MRSA," said UW Professor Marilyn Roberts, an expert in MRSA research.
Roberts said the surprise was that the bacteria had found its way from the garage to the living quarters. Tests revealed the station kitchen tables were as bad as any of the aid cars where the patients ride. But things got even more interesting when nose swabs revealed MRSA levels in firefighters ten times higher than the general public average.
Roberts emphasized the firefighters are not sick or a risk to patients, but do need to protect themselves and each other by even more vigorous hand scrubbing and equipment cleaning.
Following the study, the Snohomish County Fire District immediately changed rules on what can be brought from the garage into the station. Crews who already stripped off fire gear before entering the house were instructed to bring no equipment of any kind from the garage to the living quarters. Sanitation stations were set up everywhere around the house and all fire clothing was to be washed after every call.
"We don't want to take this home to our families," said Fetter, who added, "we have to do this job for 20, 30 years."
Other departments are adopting similar measures and agreeing to be part of a greatly expanded study by the UW.