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Why firefighters need to train for cyanide poisoning

Whether cyanide is the ‘flavor of the month’ or not, it is still a deadly toxin that’s prevalent on firegrounds

Cyanide was one of the most discussed topics in the fire service a few years back. The Cyanokit made its debut in the United States and departments across this country were buzzing about the dangers of cyanide and the benefits of carrying a cyanide antidote kit on their units.

Is the buzz still there, and if not, why?

Capt. Rick Rochford from Jacksonville (Fla.) Fire Rescue attended one of my sessions on cyanide in 2008 at the Fire Rescue East conference. Three years later I found myself sitting in his session at the same conference listening to him talk about cyanide.

Capt. Rochford took the information from my session at the conference and ran with it. You see, I was there as part of a speaker’s bureau educating the participants on the toxicity of cyanide. Three years later he was there to speak about the experiences of cyanide.

Alarming data
During the three years between, Capt. Rochford went to every fire in Jacksonville and measured the levels of toxins in the air. His readings were off the chart at entrances to the buildings that were on fire. On top of that, he did measurement readings around the firegound and detected high levels of toxins, including cyanide at the pump panel where the engineer/operator worked without any SCBA or respiratory protection.

So what does all this have to do with rehab training?

First, as an educator or trainer, you may think your sessions go unheeded. Do folks really pay attention to what you are telling them? So often we walk away from a training session wondering if anything got through to the participants.

The simple answer is yes. More gets through than you think. You need to keep to the path of educating and reinforcing.

Second, teaching on a subject one time does not cut it. You need to go back and review and update on the topic. The dangers change, especially ones you do nothing about.

Staying on topic
Training on rehab topics is important. As noted, many times we have our hot topics and then seem to move on to the next hot topic when there is relevance to go back to previous topics. Cyanide was not just a hot topic in 2008, rather it remains a hot topic today. We just don’t put the emphasis on the topic like we should.

Third, cyanide is still a dangerous and deadly toxin. Maybe it is time you dust off the cobwebs and do a training session on cyanide. Break out the gas meters and measure not only by the building that is on fire, but check the levels around the fireground. It has not been a popular topic but engineer/operators may need to be on air while functioning at the pump panel.

Without putting action behind our training and training behind our actions, things will not change for the better.

Last, consider the location of rehab. Be sure to measure the gas toxic levels in the rehab section. Locating the rehab site too close or downwind may have negative impacts on the effectiveness of the rehab sector.

Even if the buzz fades, cyanide remains toxic and personnel should take the appropriate actions to prevent cyanide poisoning to their personnel.

Dr. Lindsey is the coordinator/lecturer for the University of Florida Fire and Emergency Service degree program. He serves as the chief learning officer for Health Safety Institute. He retired from the fire service as chief of Estero (Fla.) Fire Rescue. Dr. Lindsey earned his doctorate and master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from USF. He holds a bachelor’s degree in fire and safety engineering from the University of Cincinnati. He also has earned his chief fire officer designation and is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program. He was the 2011 recipient of the James O Page Leadership Award from IAFC. You can contact Jeffrey at