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Fireground contaminant exposure control: Is the fire service really committed?

It’s time for NFPA to develop a standard specifically tailored to what’s expected of a health and safety officer


“For such a critical position in a fire department, isn’t it time for NFPA to develop a standard specifically tailored to what’s expected of an HSO?” asks Avsec.

Photo courtesy of Mark Doyle

By now every firefighter or fire officer should know that during fire suppression, overhaul, live-fire training and fire investigations, they are being exposed to the chemicals, chemical compounds and carcinogens present in the smoke of today’s structural fires – even after they return to the fire station and begin cleaning and decontaminating fire apparatus and equipment.

They must also know that the International Agency for Research on Cancer identified the occupational exposure of firefighters as “carcinogenic to humans (Group 1).” Cancer is now the No. 1 cause of firefighter occupational deaths in the U.S. [Read more: WHO cancer division reclassifies firefighting as a Group 1 carcinogenic profession]

NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety, Health, and Wellness Program requires that fire departments have written policies to address and mitigate the risks associated with “exposure to products of combustion, carcinogens, contaminants, and other incident-related health hazards.”

NFPA 1500 also requires the fire chief to assign a health and safety officer (HSO) to develop and manage these programs, and the HSO is required to meet the qualifications set forth in NFPA 1521: Standard for Fire Department Safety Officer Professional Qualifications.

And that’s as far as NFPA 1500 goes regarding an HSO.

HSO certification and continuing education

Recently, Dr. Jamie McAllister, a researcher at the University of Maryland, and her team conducted a study on the correlation between emerging fireground contaminant exposure control approaches and training – both initial and continuing education – for the HSO.

In their report, “Fireground Contaminant Exposure Control Approaches and Health and Safety Officer Continuing Education,” McAllister and her team identified a disconnect between what NFPA 1500 requires of an HSO and an HSO’s abilities to meet those requirements.

“While NFPA standards like 1500 and 1521 were being updated with emerging information about CEC, the availability of education and training for the HSO has not kept pace,” McAllister said. “NFPA 1500 doesn’t provide the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) for the HSO to be successful in one of their core functions, that is, developing and maintaining policies and procedures for their fire departments regarding fireground contaminant exposure control.”

The report, along with the recommendations of the researchers, provides a useful path forward for the initial training and continuing education of HSOs. According to McAllister, for a fire department to be successful in developing and maintaining contaminant exposure control (CEC) policies and procedures, its HSO must have the means to obtain their HSO certification and remain current in their KSAs through continuing education.

How invested is the fire service in HSO training?

While NFPA 1500 requires an HSO to have NFPA 1521 certification, that standard focuses on the requirements necessary for an individual to function as a safety officer (SO) as part of an incident commander’s Command staff. NFPA 1521 provides no guidance or direction to help the HSO succeed in their primary role: the development, implementation, and maintenance of policies and procedures for a fire department’s health and safety program.

“Unfortunately, there are only six states (Alabama, Connecticut, Maryland, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania) and one federal agency (Department of Defense) which offer the NFPA 1521 HSO certification,” McAllister said. “Moreover, there are no certifying entities which provide continuing education or recertification for the HSO. We believe that this lack of training resources significantly hampers the HSO’s ability to remain current in the knowledge, skills and abilities they need to effectively comply with the requirements in NFPA 1500.”

As part of the research, McAllister and her team conducted a regional workshop, hosted by the Maryland Fire Rescue Institute, with the goal of educating health and safety personnel and fire department leadership from Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia on the findings of the study.

Breakout sessions focused on identifying policy success measures; identifying resources needed to develop, implement and manage a CEC policy; identifying challenges for departments in developing, implementing or managing a CEC policy; and identifying current NFPA 1521 training and continuing education needs to better equip HSOs in the performance of their duties.

During those breakout sessions, the researchers learned that most of the HSOs in attendance had obtained the requisite KSAs to comply with NFPA 1500 primarily through self-education, using online articles and networking with other HSOs, including sharing departmental policies and procedures.

“We found the latter to be concerning based on the results of our policy review that revealed that many of those policies and procedures pre-dated the increased requirements for HSOs included in the 2018 revisions to NFPA 1500 and later in NFPA 1521,” McAllister said.

Fire service leaders should find this very disconcerting. Given the dynamic nature of CEC for fire departments, this lack of consistent HSO training for both initial certification and continuing education does not sync with our efforts to reduce the risk of exposures that are causing higher rates of cancer in firefighters.

3 takeaways for fire department leaders

McAllister shared several takeaways from the research:

  • The fire service must develop a consistent training curriculum for initial HSO certification to give HSOs the KSAs they need to meet the CEC-related job requirements contained in NFPA 1500 and 1521. Along with that, there must be a training curriculum that provides HSOs with continuing education to keep them current with future developments in CEC, including revisions to NFPA 1500 and 1521.
  • CEC content should be added to the Firefighter I requirements of NFPA 1001. “We must start delivering training for new firefighters that not only gives them the KSAs necessary to be a firefighter, but also informs and educates them about CEC and how to reduce their exposures in doing their job,” McAllister said.
  • Fire training academies and their instructors must model appropriate CEC measures when teaching both entry-level and incumbent firefighters. “Our team recognized that there are CEC challenges that must be addressed in the area of live-fire training,” McAllister said. “CEC solutions like post-exposure decon and personal hygiene that work on the fireground are difficult to implement when a fire academy is conducting multiple live-fire scenarios in a day. But fire department leaders and training academy managers must develop CEC measures that are appropriate for the training environment.”

The report from McAllister and her team of researchers contains a wealth of information, far more than can be addressed here, so I encourage you to read it in full.

It’s time …

Furthermore, I believe there is another takeaway here: A fire department that has a well-educated and trained HSO who is supported by leadership is a critical element in addressing our greatest challenge in developing and implementing CEC measures. Firefighters are by nature “risk-tolerant,” and CEC is “risk-aversion.” A fire department’s success in implementing CEC measures depends heavily upon its ability to develop firefighters and officers who have a good balance between risk tolerance and risk aversion. But educating firefighters and officers about risk tolerance and risk aversion requires that a fire department have an HSO who possesses the KSAs to develop and maintain CEC policies and procedures. For such a critical position in a fire department, isn’t it time for NFPA to develop a standard specifically tailored to what’s expected of an HSO?

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.