Highly trained Miller School and UHealth mass casualty experts played key roles in a search-and-rescue operation following a condo tower collapse that killed 98 people
By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Keeping the First Responders Safe
A mission-driven collaboration helped monitor and mitigate dangers at the Surfside site
By Maya Bell
About 30 hours after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium, Alberto Caban-Martinez, D.O., Ph.D., M.P.H., drove his packed SUV to the disaster site. Escorted through the chaos by an ambulance, the deputy director of Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Firefighter Cancer Initiative, or FCI, was on a mission to deliver thousands of baby wipes and a dozen decontamination kits embossed with the lifesaving motto now seen in hundreds of fire stations across Florida.
“Clean is the new badge of honor,” the large, green buckets read. Each kit contained dish soap, scrub brushes, wipes, spray bottles and hoses — items that Dr. Caban-Martinez hoped the search-and-rescue personnel would be able to use to eliminate the microscopic toxins that would cling to their skin and gear after their 12-hour shifts sifting through the debris pile.
“Prevention is key,” explained Dr. Caban-Martinez, an associate professor of public health sciences at the Miller School. “You do not want to be marinating in these compounds that are circulating in the air.”
Soon after, FCI founding director Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., M.P.H., ordered hundreds of air-filtering P-100 respiratory masks to replenish the supply at the collapse site. Turning an unthinkable tragedy into a valuable learning opportunity, she and Dr. Caban-Martinez expanded FCI’s role in Surfside to help launch an environmental and exposure monitoring program that not only kept first responders safer on the ground, but also will inform future guidelines for protecting them from another occupational hazard likely to add to their risk profile.
“We were uniquely positioned to take the evidence gleaned from our ongoing effort to address why firefighters are at increased risk of cancer incidence and mortality, and rapidly translate it to a disaster that could augment this risk substantially,” said Dr. Kobetz, Sylvester’s associate director for population sciences and cancer disparity, and the University’s vice provost for research and scholarship.
Measuring the Risks
Among their efforts, the Miller School researchers collaborated with firefighters to develop decontamination and other health and safety protocols at the disaster site. They also spearheaded the collection of real-time and longer-term environmental data by Naresh Kumar, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences who specializes in the health effects of pollution, and other colleagues and students from across the University. Their tools included silicone wristbands worn by first responders and portable air samplers and sensors used to monitor invisible particles and gases.
The first exposure study — the results of which Dr. Caban-Martinez reported at the American College of Epidemiology’s annual meeting in September — found that rescue workers were exposed to high concentrations of polyaromatic hydrocarbons, a massive class of known and probable carcinogens. Dr. Caban-Martinez also launched SAFE — the Surfside Assessment of First-Responder Exposures study — which aims to collect two years’ worth of toenail clippings from hundreds of firefighters who worked on the debris pile. Like slow-growing rings of a tree, he explained, toenail clippings can provide snapshots of a person’s exposure to heavy metals. Additional studies are ongoing throughout UM.
“Firefighters will do whatever it takes to do their job, which is saving lives without considering the repercussions,” Dr. Caban-Martinez said. “It’s our job to make sure they know how to protect themselves from hazards and reduce their risks.”