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Fireground toxins don’t care if you’re paid or volunteer

How volunteer departments can overcome challenges related to health mindset and limited PPE cleaning equipment

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A firefighter cleans his helmet immediately after returning from a fire and putting the trucks in service.

Photo/Tim Frankenberg

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Fire service leaders in small communities experience such close bonds to those we serve, our “customers,” as Chief Brunacini called them. In many cases, our customers are our actual neighbors or relatives. They are the people we grew up with and went to school with.

As if our community members are our customers, then our members are our internal customers – an even tighter-knit group. Our firefighters know each other and their families, and share extremely close bonds.

My first instructor told us that it was his responsibility to train members in a manner so they could retire healthy. It was relevant then and it is even more so now, as research continues to enlighten us about the occupational health hazards of firefighting.

You could argue that volunteer officers hold an even more significant responsibility to ensure the vitality of their members, as we know that firefighting is often a secondary career. Our firefighters’ overall health and well-being can affect their ability to sustain a future living. How we take care of our members can directly affect their shot at a healthy retirement.

Fires are hazmat incidents

The lore of the fire service is that it is a blue-collar job, and “getting dirty” is just part of a day’s work. There is indeed dirt in soot and ash; however, when did it become acceptable that we carry this material back to our personal vehicles, homes or stations? Some argue that it is just part of the job. After the fire, we are tired and have other things to do; we will get to it later.

This is no longer acceptable.

Firefighting is a dirty job; we know that going in. However, “dirty” implies dirt, and our “dirt” is much more dangerous than the dirt that our forefathers were exposed to just 30 years ago.

As fires have changed, so has the smoke. The fires today are hazmat incidents – exothermic chemical reactions that create heat, light and a plume of toxic gases disguised as smoke. We must – individually and collectively – come to understand that the smell and the dirt are toxins. If we can see it and smell it, it’s probably toxic. We wouldn’t treat hazardous materials this way. It’s time to stop treating fire, smoke and soot any differently.

Further, how we handle that dirt not only affects us, but it can very easily affect our loved ones as well. The gear we use is sometimes carried in the same vehicles as our families. The odor of smoke, whether in the fire truck, in our personal vehicle, or on us, is a sign of toxic materials lingering and off-gassing. We would not put a used Level A suit in the backseat or in the trunk, but we will put our dirty turnout gear in the places we transport our families.

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Cleaned gear hangs in the station following a run.

Photo/Tim Frankenberg

Level-up your training

The volunteer fire service is not immune to the dangers of smoke and the toxins that come with it. The fire does not care about the name on the side of the truck. The smoke does not care about the name on the truck. The smaller, rural fire department chief can put their people in just as much danger as any other department.

So, how can volunteer departments combat this issue? It starts with training and education – with a caveat.

Fire service training books and manuals can be a wealth of information, but they sometimes fall short. In reviewing one of the most recent training books for Firefighter I and II, there is a single page dedicated to cleaning PPE, with half the page occupied by photos. There is a brief snippet of NFPA recommendations, yet the NFPA standard for cleaning turnout gear isn’t cited, preventing further study. This is not adequate training.

Sure, those conducting training can use such a book as the starting point – but we must go further. Step 1 of firefighter training should be teaching the when, how and why to clean gear – in a comprehensive manner. Note: If your training program is to let the most senior person or the person with the most fires set the direction for gear maintenance, and cleaning without the necessary knowledge, those serving under you are in trouble. You need legitimate educators who are committed to firefighter health and safety leading the charge.

Steps in the right direction

Once it is recognized there is a hazard, what can be done to clean the gear? This is an especially challenging question for departments without an extractor.

The first step is gross decontamination at the scene. Much like a hazmat incident, wash as much soot and debris off at the scene as possible before getting back on the fire truck or into your personal vehicle. This could be a brush fire or a structure fire. We should wash not only our hose and trucks but also tools and, most importantly, the gear that we wear.

Many departments work in cooperation with others for SCBA and other equipment. What about the use of a washer/extractor? If a nearby department has an extractor, have you asked to use it to properly wash gear? Our department has two extractors and no department around has ever asked to use it. They use our breathing air compressor to fill cylinders; however, no one has requested to wash gear. Once fire chiefs understand the hazards, an extractor to clean gear becomes as necessary as an SCBA compressor to fill air cylinders. In the meantime, there are companies to which you can ship gear for cleaning, or a crew will come to your station to clean it.

If your department cannot afford an extractor, look at a standard washing machine at the station for washing hoods. This is a step in the right direction to help reduce exposure to toxic materials around the neck and breathing area. Further, turnout gear can be rinsed and brushed with detergent to remove deeper dirt and grim. Rinse the gear and allow it to air dry until it can be properly laundered.

Leave the toxins behind

Fires are really nasty events. The smoke and ash stick with us and our gear. It is no longer acceptable to allow our firefighters to walk away from a fire and carry the hazardous materials with them, putting themselves, their families and others at risk.

Tim Frankenberg is the fire chief of the Washington (Missouri) Fire Department. He has been in the fire service 25 years and has been a chief officer for 11 years. Frankenberg graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor’s degree in fire protection and safety engineering technology. He is nearing completion of a master’s of leadership and management from Webster University. Frankenberg is a certified fire officer II, fire instructor II, inspector, hazmat technician and EMT. In addition, he is a NFPA-Certified Fire Protection Specialist (CFPS), NICET Certified Technologist in Fire Protection and a Certified Safety Professional (CSP). He also works full time for an electric utility as a fire protection engineer with responsibilities for oversight of an industrial fire training facility.