Local firefighters will breathe easier, literally, thanks to two recent federal grants.

The North Charleston Fire Department has been awarded more than $200,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to install vehicle exhaust removal systems at all 11 of its stations. Mount Pleasant firefighters will receive more than a dozen new self-contained breathing units, thanks to a $77,800 grant from FEMA.

North Charleston Fire Chief Gregory A. Bulanow said Friday the department was focused on improving the health of its firefighters.

"There's a tendency to think that the catastrophic events pose the greatest health risks to firefighters," Bulanow said.

In truth, it is other ailments, including heart attacks and strokes, that contribute to firefighters' health problems. There is increasing evidence, the chief said, that firefighters are more than twice as likely to contract a dozen types of cancer. "The cumulative effects of the diesel exhaust can cause long-term problems," he said. "We're dedicated to the long-term health of our firefighters."

That's where the exhaust systems come in. The 26 systems will pull the exhaust of fire vehicles out of the station houses, which not only serve as offices for firefighters, but also their living quarters. The FEMA money, which comes from the agency's Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, will provide $203,282 to pay for the system.

The grant requires a $50,820 local match, which a committee of North Charleston City Council has endorsed. Final approval of the match is expect at the Thursday council meeting.

Mount Pleasant applied to the grant program to pay for several new self-contained breathing apparatuses, which firefighters use for clean air when on the job. Fire Chief Herbert Williams said the $77,800 from FEMA, along with a local match of about $15,000, will buy 17 new personal breathing systems.

"These are the life lines for our firefighters, and periodically you have to replace them," Williams said.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com 937-5561.