Aerials, Apparatus, COVID-19, EMS, Features, Pumpers, Rescues, Tankers

Cleaning and Disinfecting Our Units: What We Need to Know

By Mark Watters

In today’s world with the corona virus, we are cleaning and disinfecting our units more frequently. Very few of us have escaped being affected by this nasty virus. It has our crews, family, and citizens on edge, learning a new way to conduct our day to day lives.


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Like after 9-11, we dealt with some big changes in the way we lived and traveled. So too has this happened with life dealing with Covid 19. We are all wearing masks, washing our hands, and disinfecting everything that we encounter. Or so, we think.

First let me get this off my chest, I am not an infectious control expert. I have over 36 years of experience as a firefighter/paramedic, many of those years my assignment was part of the Hazmat team and training officer. Through this extensive experience I have had to deal with decon, handling hazards that we can see and most we can’t. My former department runs predominately EMS calls with the remaining small percentage going to actual fire calls. So, I have had my fair share of dealing with exposures to infectious diseases and the post 9-11 white powder calls. In addition, I have been detailing vehicles since high school. So, with these combined fields I am here to share my experience to help you deal with this in a safe and effective way.

So, lets break this corona virus—Covid 19—down for what we need to know. Corona virus is part of the SARS family, it comes from, or is related to, the SARS outbreak in 2003, which also originated in China. SARS Stands for “Severe Acute Respiratory syndrome”. Covid 19 is transmitted from one infected person’s respiratory system to another through droplets. It can live on surfaces for minutes, hours, or days depending on the surface and environment. The virus droplets are then picked up by an unsuspecting person, from one of those surfaces, or through air droplets from a cough/sneeze, and then finds it way to the airway where it can find its new home.

Because of this, the rate of transmission of this virus was very fast, especially in crowded areas. Some states have stated that they can track their infections to several large gatherings. From what we have learned so far about this virus, we understand the importance of hand washing and social distancing to prevent the spread of this virus. But, are we taking the necessary steps with our units and cleaning/disinfecting?

The CDC definitions:

Cleaning removes germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces or objects. Cleaning works by using soap/detergent and water to physically remove germs from surfaces. This process does not necessarily kill germs, but by removing them it lowers their numbers and the risk of spreading infection.

Disinfecting kills germs on surfaces or objects. Disinfecting works by using chemicals to kill germs on surfaces or objects. This process does not necessarily clean dirty surfaces or removes germs, but by killing germs on surface after cleaning, it can further lover the risk of spreading infection. Disinfecting usually requires the product to remain on the surface for a certain period of time (dwell) letting it stand for 3 to 5 minutes.

Sanitizing Lowers the number of germs on surfaces or objects to a safe level, as judged by public health standards or requirements. This process works by either cleaning or disinfecting surfaces or objects to lower the risk of spreading infection.

What we are starting to understand now is that cleaning is a critically important aspect of the processes, mainly because viruses are made up of proteins and fats on the outer protective layer. Using soap/detergents and water breaks down those protective layers, allowing the soap to reduce and kills most, but not all, of the germs. Cleaning methods must contain products that attack fat and proteins. Soap, detergents, steam, and all-purpose cleaners—like degreasers, simple green, etc.—contain these required properties.

Now that we know what to clean with, where should we start? According to CNN, a study done by Experian Car Rental (https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/germs-car-travel-holidays-wellness/index.html) found that there were several hot spots in cars. The steering wheels were found to be four times more germy than a public toilet seat and six times more germ-infested than your cell phone. Cup holders came in next, followed by seat belts, the inside door handle, gear shift, and audio volume knobs.

So, we need to focus on the same spots on our fire rescue vehicles with additional areas of focus on the MDT, radio mics, dials, headsets, and all emergency equipment and switches.

Most of the time when I am doing rescue and suppression units for my business, I like to use steam. I start the process by adding small amount of Simple Green or all-purpose cleaner with the water to run through my machine. This helps break down the built-up dirt and grime faster. Steam quickly kills germs by pushing tiny vapor molecules which penetrate a surface’s pores to force out dirt, grease and other stain-causing substances. You can use straight water most of the time, but to assure you are attacking those germs, a soap/detergent will make this process more effective. For areas that I am concerned with, the steam vapor having a negative effect, or confined areas, I use the all-purpose cleaner small brush, and microfiber towels. I spray the area, agitate with the brush, and wipe clean with the microfiber towel, changing the towels as needed to assure there isn’t reapplying of dirt/germs from another area being cleaned.

One side note, when you are cleaning your tablets and MDTs, you need to be careful selecting the products you use on those surfaces, especially the keyboard and touchscreens. CNET.com has put a video out that address these types of items, basically, using a lightly damp microfiber towel with water and simple dish detergent. Clean the surface with the damp towel, then dry with a separate microfiber towel. For disinfectant you can use an alcohol-based disinfectant. Apply the solution on those surfaces and then wipe clean after the appropriate time.

Now that we have the surface cleaned, we are ready to begin eliminating the unseen hazards, through disinfection. For many departments, the disinfection tool of choice is the BYO Planet machine, now replaced by the Clorox 360 Electrostatic Sprayer. For those departments that do not use this method, disinfectant wipes are another way to achieve this step. All disinfectants need to sit on a surface in order to chemically kill the germs, virus, bacteria. This process of allowing the agent to sit on the surface is called dwell time. The EPA defines dwell time as the amount of time that a sanitizer or disinfectant must be on contact with the surface and remain wet, in order to achieve the product’s, kill rate (https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/documents/ece_curriculumfinal.pdf).

Dwell times can vary from product to product, just know that they all have a minimum time required to achieve the disinfectant level. Let’s look at some of those times. Here are some disinfectant wipes.

Now for the BYO Planet—Clorox Total Disinfectant Cleaner. This is an electrostatic sprayer, the liquid is atomized into droplets, which are charged by the application of electrical current as they exit the sprayer. When the charged droplets approach a surface, they induce an opposite charge on the surface. This attracts the charged droplets to the surface. The charged droplets also repel each other, preventing them from coalescing into larger droplets and allowing them to uniformly cover the surface. Droplets can even be attracted to the backs of surfaces regardless of the direction of spray, enabling them to wrap around a range of surface types such as curved surfaces. The dwell time for this product is approximately five minutes according to the manufacture’s literature; however, this time can vary depending on the product being utilized (https://multi-clean.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/ElectrostaticSprayingWhitePaper3-1-18.pdf).

Once we have applied the disinfectant, we must let it dwell for the appropriate amount of time. Depending on the product, some may require the residual to be wiped down with a clean microfiber towel. With the Clorox 360 or BYO plane,t wiping is not necessary.

Once the interior is done on your apparatus, don’t forget about the outside. Areas like the latches, door handles, and other surfaces on the exterior can also harbor germs. Well a good old fashion wash is an ideal solution for these areas. I like using the foam cannon, with a regular truck wash soap. For me, I am using my H2O Foam attack, which is neutral on the pH balance but is still going to cover the surface with a nice soap base to attack those exterior surfaces. Allow it to sit on the surface to accomplish the goal of getting rid of those fat and proteins and rinse clean.

In summary, we don’t know how long we will be dealing with this virus, right now we are in the beginning stage of this fight. Experts have stated that things are expected to level off and then slowly return to normal. However, they also state that most likely there will be a resurgence of the virus in the fall of 2020. Since there is no vaccine as of this date and no proven treatment that works on all the infected, we don’t know if people that have been infected have antibodies to fight off getting infected again. For those reasons stated, we are going to be dealing with this for some time to come. We need to stay diligent, focused and safe, to protect our crews, families and citizens. Thank you again for your time and I hope this has given you some much needed info.

MARK WATTERS is the owner of Captain H2O Solutions, and captain (ret.) with Sunrise (FL) Fire Rescue with more than 33 years on special operations teams. He also serves as the training captain/coordinator for the Plantation (FL) Volunteer Fire Department’s training division.