Why fire departments should invest in N95s post-COVID
Protect firefighters from harmful fireground particulates with high-quality respirators and face masks
Content provided by Dräger
After more than a year in various versions of lockdowns, restrictions and masking up, the United States and other countries are emerging from a global pandemic. Life is returning to some semblance of normal. Without exception, we’re all fatigued by the words “COVID-19” or “social distancing” or “N95.”
We all want to strip masks off our faces and breathe the raw air. But there’s one place where the firefighter should remain in an N95. That’s the fireground.
Prior to the pandemic, most folks had never heard of an N95, and now we don’t want to hear it anymore. However, the N95 respirator played an important a role before COVID and, hopefully, it will have a much larger role in the fire service.
Why? One word: Cancer.
Take steps to reduce cancer risk
By now, it’s well documented that firefighters face an elevated risk for developing cancer, usually later in their careers. More and more fire departments are developing procedures to protect the long-term health of their firefighters by adjusting standard operating procedures.
An example can be seen in a small fire department with less than 75 career firefighters that invested in a sauna to “sweat out” the particulates as a part of their after-incident routine. And this fire department isn’t located out West. It’s deep in the heart of Texas.
Particulates in smoke are well-recognized as carrying carcinogens. Smoke – even a campfire – emits carcinogens. For example, the well-known carcinogen formaldehyde naturally occurs in wood. As cozy as a wood fire smells, it’s bad for you.
The particulates in smoke are between 0.4 and 2.5 microns – which translates to 0.000015 to 0.000098 inches. And while the particulates could slip through the open pores on a firefighter’s skin as he or she sweats, the respiratory system provides even easier access to the body.
Think of tobacco. The Surgeon General warns that smoking tobacco can lead to many health issues including cancer. Inhaling smoke on the fireground is similar.
If properly worn, an N95 respirator filters out 95 percent of non-oil particulates 0.3 microns or larger. That means most of those toxic particulates found in smoke would be filtered out.
Any time a firefighter chooses any form of air-purifying respirator, including an N95, mobile gas monitors should be used to alert firefighters to the presence of colorless toxic gases (like the “toxic twins” carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide) so they know when should use their SCBAs instead.
When to wear an N95 vs. SCBA
SCBAs are the most effective at protecting the airways of firefighters on the fireground. However, not all first responders can be on air throughout an incident from knockdown to overhaul. Choosing air-purifying respirators can provide a cost-effective solution. Some respirators, like a PAPR or dual-filter mask, can boost airway protection from 0.3 micron and larger particulates to 99.97% if a P100 or better filter is selected.
The first step is beginning with an N95. Many metro fire departments require that firefighters at an incident wear an N95 when not on air. This includes rehab. And it has nothing to do with the pandemic. The requirement existed before COVID and will continue after.
Dräger makes N95s at a plant in Pennsylvania, and this is a matter of the long-term health of firefighters and helping them reducing the chance of getting occupational cancer. No matter where you choose to purchase your respirators, be sure to wear them. It’s just another way to reduce the chance of occupational cancer.