New custom gear helps one-armed firefighter push past limitations

tstevens@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 14, 2013 

After six and half years, Lt. Gene Hull can finally enter a burning building again.

Hull, a firefighter of 31 years with the Columbus Fire Department, was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma in 2006, a rare form of joint cancer that wrapped itself around Hull's collarbone and shoulder and forced doctors to amputate his right arm and take some of his right rib cage.

"The doctors told me to go ahead and amputate and get all the cancer, or we could do surgery and I would just have a limb hanging there," he said.

Most fire departments in such a situation would decide to let the firefighter go, Hull said. Instead, he stayed with the department he had worked at for 31 years and applied for a position in the training division.

"From that moment on, it felt like it was my responsibility to do the best I could," Hull said.

But with a missing arm and no custom protective gear that could mitigate health hazards in the field, Hull was restricted in his abilities.

"I'm in training and we do a lot of burning buildings in our training facility," Hull said. "And one of the restrictions is that I couldn't go into the burning building cause I didn't have the proper turnout gear. "

Seeing this, Captain Lynn Martin met with Tommy Johnson, a sales representative from the North America Fire Equipment Company. From there, an idea formed to create custom protective gear to relieve Hull of some limitations placed on him.

"I talked to (Johnson) and he said 'Yeah, we can … well, I think we can give that a shot,'" she said. "It's all because of the man (Hull) is that I even considered pitching this."

Together with LION, a company that creates safety gear, NAFECO and the Columbus Fire Department were able to create a custom turnout coat that would keep Hull safe during simulations but also allow him to do his job more efficiently and participate in tasks he had been barred from because of his disabilities.

"I found out real quick that the limitations they put on me were holding me back," Hull said. "So thanks to (Martin) and LION and NAFECO, I can do more of my job."

The suit features extra padding on the right side to prevent Hull from injuring vital organs that are now unprotected due to the missing ribs. The padding also aids with balance. Other challenges in creating the suit included where to put the other suspender, considering Hull has no right shoulder, and how to attach his breathing machine. It took slightly more than a year to specify and perfect the coat for Hull, during which LION and NAFECO made two potential coats and went through several design drafts.

The development has been acclaimed by the department -- Monday, the Columbus Fire Department held a ceremony for LION and NAFECO and presented representatives with two plaques praising them for "creating a bright future for (their) colleague."

John Weaver, a region sales manager at LION, and Johnson said working on Hull's turnout coat was one of those moments that made their job worth while.

"We fit turnout gear for people everyday, but to do this project makes the rest of them worth it," Johnson said.

The turnout coat won't allow Hull to return to the same duties he had before his surgery, but it will allow him to participate in other training exercises, such as simulated burning buildings. Hull said although he won't be getting on the fire truck again, he's looking forward to improving his ability to train recruits.

"I'm not looking to get back on the fire truck, because that would be too big a liability not only to myself but to the other firefighters," he said. "But in a training environment, where everything's controlled and there's safety lines and everything like that, there wouldn't be an issue."

Hull's new coat may not only be a boon to him, but may lead the way for other public safety workers with disabilities. Because the Fire Department kept Hull on and were willing to invest in helping him perform to the best of his ability, LION and NAFECO were better able to create the coat for Hull. This, in turn, may encourage other suppliers to take on special cases.

"The process of determining what's normal starts with them," Weaver said. "The Columbus Fire Department decided to honor him and keep him on. I've been around the country to dozens of places. I don't know of any departments that would have done what they've done.

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