Toxic tradition: Should furniture be allowed in the apparatus bays?

It’s time to wash away the traditional bay lounge areas where toxic exposure can occur

By Michael J. Hauser

Cancer reduction is easily one of the most discussed topics within fire and rescue services across the country during recent years. Discussion typically revolves around reducing the exposure to carcinogens during firefighting operations and in the post-fire environment.

Much of the current research leads to policies and procedures being developed for proper decontamination of structural PPE on scene, as well as transporting said equipment back to the fire station in apparatus manufactured with a clean cab concept. Because firefighters are not always fighting fires, but rather spend a significant amount of their day at the fire station conducting training, administrative and prevention tasks, we should address how to reduce exposure to carcinogens in the firehouse.

While toxins have been kept out of living areas, the trend of bay tables or lounges has continued – a trend that combines the toxins of the apparatus bay and a “living” space. (Photo/Michael J. Hauser)
While toxins have been kept out of living areas, the trend of bay tables or lounges has continued – a trend that combines the toxins of the apparatus bay and a “living” space. (Photo/Michael J. Hauser)

General principles and practices have prohibited fire gear from being inside the living quarters of the fire station, and for years bunker pants have no longer been stored next to bunks. While toxins have been kept out of living areas, the trend of bay tables or lounges has continued – a trend that combines the toxins of the apparatus bay and a “living” space. So, this raises the question: Should furniture be allowed in the apparatus bay?

Studying toxic exposure at the firehouse

Little research has been done into the presence of carcinogens within fire stations. A study was conducted in Cincinnati in 2014, and another study, where most of the data is found, was conducted at four Boston fire stations in 2018.

In the Boston study, particulate matter less than 2.5 millimeters in diameter was measured, and continuous monitoring was conducting to measure for particle-bound polycyclic hydrocarbons (PAH), which, according to the EPA, are carcinogenic. The study identified that concentrations of particulates were higher in the apparatus bay than in other areas of the fire station. The average concentration of PAHs present in the apparatus bays was 29.5 mg/m3, but OSHA’s permissible exposure limit (PEL), which is the amount an individual may be exposed to over 8 hours per day for a total of 40 hours per week, is 0.2 mg/m3. Firefighters often work 24-hour shifts for an average of 48 or 56 hours a week, which is a significantly longer period than what is covered by OSHA’s PEL.

Two possible sources of this increase in PAHs within the apparatus bays include the presence of diesel exhaust and particle re-suspension from fire-exposed gear and equipment.

Continued exposure to diesel exhaust may partially explain the high incidence of certain cancers among firefighters. Certain measures, including the use of exhaust removal systems, and proper washing and storage of PPE, can reduce the build-up of carcinogens within the apparatus bays; however, these measures have their limitations.

Exhaust removal systems add a financial burden to fire and rescue departments, and they require personnel to use the systems once they are in place – or an air filtration system that runs continuously. Further, while most firefighters follow guidelines for gear cleaning, there are still some who don’t. Whether PPE is laundered properly or not, to truly reduce the potential of carcinogen exposure from PPE, and to protect PPE from carcinogens present in diesel exhaust, PPE should be stored in a separate room with adequate ventilation. This again adds an expense to a fire department’s budget to either retrofit existing fire stations, where PPE is most often stored directly in the bay or in a room opening to the bay, with separate PPE storage, or to design new fire stations with such a room.

If limitations exist to exhaust removal systems and properly laundering and storing PPE, how then can cancer-reduction efforts occur at the fire station?

Cancer protection best practice: Think in “zones”

Best practices for reducing exposure to carcinogens in the fire station, as outlined by the U.S. Fire Administration and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, include a clear separation of living quarters from the apparatus floor. The USFA’s document Safety and Health Considerations for the Design of Fire and Emergency Medical Services Stations lays out a fire station like a hazmat incident: contaminants are left in the red or hot zone, while a clean area, the green or cold zone, is designated for kitchens, offices, training rooms, lobbies, studies/libraries, meeting/conference rooms, and dormitories.

Based on the limited research, and in accordance with best practices, the risk of cancer can be reduced by limiting time spent in the apparatus bay; this time should be for apparatus and equipment maintenance, practical training and emergency response. Other training, meetings and general relaxation should take place in the separated living quarters.

Not all traditions are meant to last

While the traditional bay “lounges” provide a certain fire department nostalgia, to provide for a healthier and safer fire service, this tradition should be washed away like the soot on a fire helmet, a former badge of honor, but now a symbol of cancer. The fire service, through the USFA or the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, should evaluate and affirm its position on cancer reduction, and, as such, should conduct more research on reduction measures during all aspects of a typical day on the job.

Editor’s Note: Do you think furniture should be allowed in the apparatus bay? Share your take in the comments below.

About the author

Mike Hauser has over 15 years of combined volunteer and career fire and rescue experience, and is currently a lieutenant with the Prince William County Department of Fire and Rescue in Northern Virginia. While much of Hauser’s career has been assigned to an engine company, he is currently assigned as one of the department's safety officers. As such, Hauser is responsible for continuously evaluating policies and procedures to ensure that they promote a healthy and safe fire service.

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