By Robert Tutterow
Much has been written and spoken about firefighter safety and fire apparatus.
Though a lot has been done, there are still issues that remain, such as seat width. The fire service definitely does not need to lose its focus on apparatus safety. However, the focus needs to be widened to address firefighter health. Specifically, the contamination from the products of combustion to the cab interior and the equipment carried on the apparatus poses health risks.
To date, the main focus of contamination has been on personal protective equipment (PPE). This only makes sense because PPE is “personal”-i.e., it is in direct contact with the body. But, what about all the other contaminated equipment firefighters encounter?
The following scenario is common in the U.S. fire service: Firefighters respond to a working fire, engage in suppression, extinguish the fire, and return to the station. A few hours later, they receive a call for a medical emergency. They respond, render aid, package the patient for transport, and return to the station. What just happened? Firefighters wore contaminated gear (especially pants and boots) inside the apparatus cab for the return to the station after fire extinguishment. The seats are cross contaminated. The firefighters respond to the medical emergency wearing the station work uniforms, which become cross contaminated. They then are likely to enter a residence or place of business and spread the contamination. Then they return to the station, again riding on contaminated seats, and go into the station and sit on day room or kitchen chairs. The cross contamination continues.
Not Just the Seats
The previous scenario has other layers. Think about footwear. Is anything more contaminated than the bottoms of boots following a working fire? Firefighters place the bottoms of those boots directly on the apparatus cab floor. An emergency medical service (EMS) call comes in, and the firefighters, wearing the station work shoes, contaminate those shoes when they enter the cab. The contamination then spreads to the scene of the EMS call and eventually back into the fire station.
Aside from PPE, think of all the other equipment on fire apparatus that is contaminated. In fact, try to think of a piece of equipment that is not contaminated. Pieces of equipment that are the most grossly contaminated are attack hose, nozzles, and tool handles.
What are the solutions? Only time will tell as this becomes more of an issue. The Firefighter Cancer Support Network is starting to look at overall contamination, and research grant applications have been submitted to study the problem and identify best practices.
From a design perspective, apparatus manufacturers should consider interior cab finishes that are nonporous and easily cleaned-especially seats and flooring. There have been discussions about removable floor mats for apparatus. Perhaps something like the popular WeatherTech floor liners should be considered. Would the lip pose a trip hazard? These are easily removed, cleaned, and replaced. There have also been suggestions for seat covers that are easily removed and cleaned. Or, perhaps a disposable seat cover is a practical approach.
Decontamination wipes should be as common in and on apparatus as toilet paper in a restroom. The wipes, such as FireWipes, which were introduced at this year’s FDIC International, can be used to wipe the skin as well as parts of the apparatus such as: grab handles, grab rails, door latches, seat belt buckles, steering wheels, seats, etc. The wipes are specifically designed for firefighters to remove carcinogens and other contaminants.
It might be that the best solution is bagging all gear at the scene and returning the gear to the station without putting it in the apparatus cab. It could be carried back in a dedicated compartment or in a support vehicle like a pickup truck with a bed cover. While reviewing E-ONE’s HS chassis, someone noted that there is a void space at the front of the cab where the engine is typically located. Another mentioned this could be used for storage or a booster reel. I immediately responded that it could become an externally accessed storage area for contaminated PPE.
In reality, decontamination is not rocket science. It’s common sense. It’s awareness. It’s taking it seriously. Many approaches are being used and discussed to address ways to minimize the risk of firefighters getting cancer. The latest figures indicate that firefighters are three times more likely to develop cancer than the general population. PPE cleaning is being stressed (obviously), on-scene decontamination makes sense, and the idea of hot zones in fire stations is emerging. I foresee an emphasis on equipment decontamination, especially fire hose washing and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and SCBA face piece washing. It will take an “all-hands working” approach to address the firefighter cancer issue. Apparatus design should be a part of the process.
ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Education Resource Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).