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How to protect the fire apparatus after on-site decontamination

By addressing configuration, materials used and ventilation operations, the fire apparatus can avoid contamination by turnout gear

Certainly, a great deal is being discussed and written about firefighters and their exposure to toxic materials and carcinogens, and the connection to an increased risk of developing cancer. As more studies are conducted, best practices have come forth concerning on-site decontamination following interior structural firefighting and the need for proper cleaning and drying of PPE upon return to quarters.

But how can crew members get that turnout gear – that’s been grossly decontaminated and is now soaking wet – back to the station without creating secondary contamination of the fire apparatus, particularly the crew cab? In this article, we’ll look at how we can begin working on an engineered solution to this vexing problem.

That solution will need to address several key areas for the design and manufacturing of fire apparatus.

  • Adding features to support on-site gross decontamination (e.g., warm water discharges and showers) to the exterior of the vehicle.
  • Designing the crew cab surfaces and riding seats for easier cleaning and decontamination.
  • Designing compartmentation solutions that keep firefighters, their contaminated gear and SCBA separate from each other during the ride back to the fire station.

Designing your next fire apparatus

Firefighters and officers spend a good deal of time aboard their fire apparatus; depending upon the department and its activity level, maybe more time than they do in the fire station some days. Regardless of how much time your department’s personnel spend on your fire apparatus, it’s imperative that we get better at keeping that environment – the crew cab – clean and safe.

For future fire apparatus purchases, the design and construction processes must address this need. We now know the routes of exposure to the toxic materials and carcinogens found during interior structural firefighting include respiratory inhalation, skin absorption and ingestion. When designing the interior cab of the apparatus, keep those routes of exposure and decontamination in mind by:

  • Using as many smooth surfaces as possible.
  • Using a seamless smooth flooring system that allows for easy decontamination and washdown.
  • Using lighter-colored interiors to easily identify dirt and particulates.
  • Keeping electronics high up to facilitate floor washing and spray-out rinsing.
  • Using nonabsorbent surfaces such as vinyl for the seats with few to no seams.
  • Keeping all firefighting equipment out of the cab: no SCBAs, no irons, no thermal imaging cameras, etc. The exception is PPE that has been cleaned in accordance with departmental policy and manufacturer recommendations.
  • Incorporating adequate lighting for nighttime operations and for decontamination efforts.
  • Having an automatic “windows up” feature to keep diesel emissions out of the crew cab, such as when apparatus pump is engaged, the windows automatically go up if in the down position.
  • Having the vehicle’s air conditioning system go into recirculation mode so as not to pull in contaminated air.
  • Using specialized filtration systems for the cab proven to clean the air.

When designing the exterior of your new fire apparatus, also keep on-site decontamination in mind and provide features that make that task safer, more effective, and more efficient.

  • Provide the ability to conduct gross decontamination with a low-pressure hose line, preferably from either side of the apparatus.
  • Design a compartment or compartments that can accommodate all the standard tools and equipment needed by the crew for fires (e.g., SCBAs, flashlights, thermal imaging cameras, gas meters and forcible entry tools). This area can also serve as a rally point for firefighters and officers to get on the same page by sharing the IAP.
  • Design compartment space to store contaminated gear outside the cab.
  • Designate compartment space for decontamination equipment and supplies.
  • Design the exhaust system with vertical exhaust to minimize the exposure to personnel on scene or include exhaust removal systems.

Examples of manufacturer solutions

Pierce Manufacturing addresses these issues with its Carcinogen Awareness and Reduction to Exposure (CARE) program that’s now been integrated into the apparatus design and construction processes. Some of CARE’s features include:

  • Crew cabs with more cleanable apparatus seats and interior surfaces.
  • Vertical diesel engine exhaust options that keep diesel emissions out of the flowpath around the fire apparatus to minimize inhalation exposure to firefighters.
  • Warm water decon outlets on both sides of the apparatus.
  • High-impact HVAC filtration for the crew cab to minimize potential inhalation exposure to off-gassing materials.
  • Custom add-ons like decon showerheads.
  • Alternative SCBA storage (e.g., fender compartments) for the safe transportation of SCBA back to the fire station for further cleaning and decontamination.

Earlier this year, Spartan Emergency Response launched its own initiative for solving these problems with enhancements to its original Advanced Protection System (APS). Those enhancements include features like:

  • New non-porous seats impervious to contaminants.
  • Tough and durable sprayed-on protective coatings inside the cab for easier spray-outs and cleaning.
  • SCBA containment compartments to keep SCBA units stowed separately outside of the cab.

For many fire departments, the above is going to be a very new concept, and some may struggle with acceptance. Especially the part about keeping all tools and equipment outside the crew compartment. But, believe it or not, there was a time when that new-fangled device, SCBA, was kept in a compartment on the apparatus, and firefighters still managed to put out fires.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.