What does the smoke from a fire and a cabinet full of chemicals have in common? They often contain the same dangerous materials.
During a fire, firefighters must brave not only flames, but a slew of other hazards as well: gas, smoke, heat, blood, body fluids, toxins, contaminants… Fortunately, these risks are reduced by wearing protective clothing, which serves as a thermal and physical barrier. That being said, this protection is certainly not perfect – especially in today’s world, where buildings tend to be larger and contain far more combustible materials, which in turn produce fires that emit highly toxic smoke. In other words, today’s fires are much more dangerous to firefighters than those of our grandparents’ time.
Studies show that firefighters are more likely to develop cancer than the general population.
Firefighter turnout gear is not designed to withstand chemicals. As a result, it loses functionality when contaminated by smoke. The fabric, seam sealing tape and reflective trim all begin to deteriorate, diminishing their protective properties. The gear also becomes more flammable, less durable and more conductive to heat and electricity. Dirty or contaminated gear exposes firefighters to contaminants through ingestion, inhalation or skin absorption. There used to be a time when coming home in a dirty, sooty coat was a badge of honour for firefighters. Studies have since shown that toxic volatile organic compounds emanate from turnout gear long after the flames have been extinguished. Sadly, these VOCs can slowly kill firefighters right up to when they return to the station, and even after.
Gear can be contaminated even when it’s free of visible stains or dirt. If it smells like smoke, it’s contaminated!
Firefighters are strongly advised to adopt habits that reduce their exposure to contaminants. In fact, certain operating procedures for decontaminating protective equipment are now required. This includes setting up portable showers outside of burning buildings, immediately scrubbing turnout gear and carefully removing helmets. The importance of this last point should not be underestimated because most carcinogenic hydrocarbons enter a firefighter’s blood stream through the hoods worn under their helmets.
After battling a fire, a firefighter’s gear is not just soiled, it’s contaminated with all sorts of hazardous materials. Turnout gear should be cleaned as soon as possible to remove as many surface contaminants as possible – before they can become firmly attached to or even embedded in the gear. Immediately cleaning turnout gear will also prevent contaminants from spreading inside the truck and throughout the station. These efforts can go a long way in reducing a firefighter’ exposure to harmful contaminants.
To prevent firefighters, equipment and the station itself from becoming contaminated, each fireman should ideally do the following directly at the incident site:
- Wear disposable gloves when handling/cleaning all gear and tools used in the intervention.
- Clean/decontaminate their turnout gear.
- Remove their respirator and place it in an airtight bag.
- Remove their hood and clean their face, neck and hands with cleaning wipes.