Firefighters suffer more from certain serious diseases than other professions, and in our modern world, the risks are increasing rapidly. To stave off the threats, firefighters must minimise the danger by tackling one main occupational hazard: harmful contaminants that accumulate on clothes and equipment. Decontamination both on site and off may be the only effective solution.
Decontamination of personal protection equipment and clothing can often end up low down on the priority list. After all, your firefighting job has been completed, you’ve moved out of the hot zone, and the hazard is no longer a clear and present danger. What else is there to do but hop into the truck, go back to the station, get out of your protective gear and slip into something more comfortable?
But the real story is a different one. Proper decontamination is of utmost importance. Sure, you have been protected by your clothing and respiratory equipment in the hazard area – but the gear itself has been directly exposed to harmful substances for an extended period and may still carry on its surface the contaminants from the dangerous environment.
Our world gets fuller and fuller of potential and apparent risks in the form of synthetic materials, chemicals, pathogens, carcinogens, bio-hazards, and many other types of health risks. Everyone is exposed to such risks, both at home and at work, but firefighters work with fire, and combustion can generate and release many more substances and render them airborne and breathable and capable of entering your body through the skin.
Firefighting personnel routinely encounter burning plastics, hydrocarbons, combustion gases, acids, metals, aromatic compounds, benzene, styrene, dioxin, formaldehyde and countless other toxins, along with other harmful substances such as asbestos. All of these can cause severe health effects. And firefighters stand a significantly higher risk than others of contracting serious disease, such as testicular and prostate cancer, myeloma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
So, there you are, in your rugged, safe, high-quality, high-efficiency protective gear. ‘What have I got to worry about?’ you might ask. ‘I’m protected.’
Perhaps you are – until inevitably, the time comes when you take off your clothing and equipment. This is the critical moment. And not only for yourself: contaminated turnout gear, BA sets, respirators, hoses, and other items leave a long trail of hazards to a whole chain of people.
Many firefighting authorities around the world recommend decontamination in the field, often called gross decontamination. Many prescribe dry (brush), wet (water spray) or air (blower) decontamination of the whole person while wearing full protection. Most sources agree that soap and water seem to be the most effective method. Then, after safe removal of the clothing and equipment, the firefighters (after having a shower on the site) are transported back to the fire station dressed in clean clothing with the soiled clothing and equipment in sealed bags, in isolated compartments or separate vehicles.
During the entire procedure, personnel should avoid smoking, eating, drinking, touching skin, or going to the toilet.
Naturally, this means longer periods between finishing the job and going back to the station (some calculate one hour extra). It also leads to the need for special decontamination equipment, such as brushes, tents, showers, air blowers, respirators, protective clothing for cleaners, and more.
This sounds like a great obstacle and a substantial cost for the organisation – but what if it prevents personnel from getting seriously ill?
In any case, according to the so-called ‘Skellefteå Model’, the bottom line remains: firefighting personnel must not go back to the fire station in the cab of the fire truck wearing or carrying clothes and equipment contaminated by harmful materials.
Depending on the type and amount of hazards present, an on-site (that is, gross decontamination) checklist could include:
- Firefighter keeps all clothing and equipment on including SCBA face piece.
- Assistant hoses down entire person with water or soapy water (alternatively, firefighter uses portable decontamination shower).
- Run-off water may have to be contained and collected in order to avoid seeping into the soil or remaining on the ground.
- Firefighter strips off all clothing and equipment and has a shower, scrubbing down all body parts, and changes into clean clothes.
- No eating, drinking, smoking, touching face or using toilet until after shower.
- All clothing and equipment is placed in sealed plastic bags.
- Transport back to base, people and bags in separate compartments.
Note: the above checklist is based on cases where the hazard is known or suspected to constitute a high health risk. Lesser measures can be taken in cases of only light hazards.
Back at base
If on-site decontamination is a crucial exercise, then what happens with clothing and equipment back at the fire station is another.
In some brigades, the clothes and equipment are sent off to a professional third-party facility for thorough decontamination. In others, the gear is cleaned at the fire station, either by the firefighters themselves, or by cleaning personnel.
Whichever method is used, it is important to have a strict and clear sequence of safe procedures in place. Otherwise you stand the risk of being contaminated by the decontamination!
While there are countless ways of handling soiled clothing and equipment, a general checklist might comprise:
- Contaminated clothing and equipment to be cordoned off and isolated from access by unprotected personnel.
- Personnel to avoid all contact with real, potential, or unknown hazards by wearing protective clothing and breathing protection.
- All people in the premises to be aware of hazards and trained in appropriate handling and decontamination methods.
‘Round and ‘round it goes
While some fire stations around the world settle for simple soaking of turnout gear and others ignore decontamination altogether, other fire brigades have a bank of washing machines (often called ‘extractors’) for soaking, washing, rinsing and drying clothing and fabrics. But what about BA sets, helmets, visors, boots, masks, cylinders and harnesses?
Nowadays, there are specialised washing machines for those, too. Specially developed for use in fire stations, such devices subject the equipment to powerful water jets, scrubbing away every morsel of debris, dirt and grease from all angles. Some washers can decontaminate 20 breathing apparatus sets — complete with facemasks — in a single hour, or hundreds of helmets, gloves and boots in the same time. Five-minute cycles for BA sets; two-minute cycles for the rest.
Different strokes for different folks
Various fire brigades around the world have adopted widely differing philosophies, methods and equipment when it comes to on-site and off-site decontamination. Practices range from taking decontamination very lightly (virtually ignoring it) to implementing a strict cleaning program after every single firefighting operation. For example, it is not uncommon to have turnout gear cleaned only once or twice per year. Items are simply stored away for the next use, accumulating (and releasing) more and more hazardous materials. Nor is it unusual to do much more to keep firefighters as isolated and protected as possible from their own contaminated clothing and equipment after their job is finished.
Undeniably, though, professional firefighters really do make up a significantly larger group of disease sufferers than other sectors of workers. There is no excuse for ignoring the real risks firefighters are exposed to – apart from the fire itself.
For more information, go to www.healthyfirefighters.com
- Fent, K. W. et al. 2017, Contamination of Firefighter Personal Protective Equipment and Skin and the Effectiveness of Decontamination Procedures, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, vol. 14, issue 10, pp. 801-814
- Granuldisk 2018, How do you decontaminate equipment after an emergency call?, SoloRescue.com
- Helgesen, J. 2010, Management and Decontamination of Firefighters Structural Protective Clothing and Equipment, The David Balfour Churchill Fellowship, The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust of Australia
- Horn, G., Kerber, S. Smith, D., Fent, K. 2017, Cleaning and Decon Considerations After the Fire, Firehouse.com
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- National Fire Protection Association 1997, Supplement 10: Guidelines for Decontamination of Fire Fighters and Their Equipment Following Hazardous Materials Incidents, NFPA International, Quincy, Massachusetts, USA
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- Stull, J. O., & Stull, G.G. 2015, Can Firefighting Gear be Decontaminated on Scene?, FireRescue1.com