Attention to firefighter cancer in recent years has helped to encourage a variety of efforts aimed at reducing exposure to harmful contaminants.
While cancer understandably has a way of capturing attention, it is important to note that there are additional health effects associated with the toxins produced during firefighting operations, including kidney and liver disorders, neurodevelopmental effects, decreased fertility, respiratory disease, coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and more.
Furthermore, not all fires emit the same level of contaminants, and not all firefighters at the scene experience the same degree of exposure. Research has found higher levels of contaminants on the turnout jackets of personnel assigned to inside attack and search duties post-fire than those assigned to overhaul and backup; however, overhaul activities also entail significant exposure to contaminants because contaminants can be disturbed and enter the breathing zone.
The bottom line is that decontamination is an emerging issue that requires commitments from everyone. Fire departments need to provide environments that support best practices, while firefighters and fire officers must also accept responsibility for reducing exposures and limiting risk.
Decontamination best practices and procedures have been shared by every major fire organization to date – but they bear repeating and sharing, over and over again. They demand commitment at the department level, ownership by first responders, and guidance at every turn by fire service leadership.
Financial resources and outdated protocols continue to hamper decontamination efforts at certain departments. For instance, not every department has the ability to purchase a second set of gear or secure proper laundering solutions; but there are a number of practices that can substantially reduce harm to firefighters. Here’s 15 that may just help save a life:
- Perform some decontamination before leaving the scene. For example, gross decontamination with an industrial scrub brush is an effective initial step to remove debris and contaminants. It should be followed by using a garden hose or low-volume fire hose to avoid contaminating personal areas of vehicles or the fire station.
- Clean face pieces every time they are used. Research has found contaminants on the inside of face pieces which can lead to concerning inhalation and skin contact hazards. At the fire scene, use disposable wipes for cleaning your mask.
- Tools and equipment should also go through gross decontamination before returning to the station in order to avoid cross contamination.
- Establish a personal hand washing station to be used onsite by connecting a simple diverter valve from the apparatus heat exchange to the pump panel. Stock with soap, towels, and disposable wipes.
- Wear under gloves and glove liners when removing and handling contaminated gear to protect your hands from absorbing toxins on PPE and equipment.
- To avoid cross-contamination, remove, seal and store turnout gear, including PPE, boots, gloves, masks, and helmets, in large, leak-proof plastic bags in a designated turnout compartment (separate from the cab) before entering vehicles.
- If possible, avoid taking your gear home or storing PPE in personal vehicles. When this isn’t possible, as is often the case for volunteer firefighters, gear should be bagged or stored in containers and stowed outside personal space or vehicles.
- Open bags of gear and equipment outside the station for proper off-gassing.
- Prioritize decontamination laundering.
- Shower as soon as possible following exposure.
- Ensure that local exhaust ventilation systems (including those that attach to apparatus to capture diesel exhaust) are in place to reduce contaminants within the station.
- If your station has a laundry extractor, avoid mixing contaminated gear with less contaminated gear to reduce cross-contamination.
- Store decontaminated ensembles in dedicated, well-ventilated areas at the station.
- Wear alternate footwear inside the station to reduce contamination of indoor areas from footwear worn at the scene.
- Share these important steps with other crew members, and hold yourself and others accountable for doing all that you can to reduce occupational exposure to hazardous contaminants.
NFPA has had the backs of the fire service for more than a century. To help reduce firefighter exposure to harmful toxins on the scene, in department apparatus, at the firehouse and in personal spaces, please refer to our research, standards, and resources.