It is not a stretch to say that the personal protective equipment (PPE) that firefighters have today is the best it has ever been and offers the most protection available when operating at a structure fire.
One could also argue that the protection available for emergency medical services (EMS) operations is also outstanding. Yet, as the environment in which firefighters work continues to change and more information and research become available, there will continue to be more advances. I cannot overstate the importance of offering the latest and most appropriate PPE based on the hazards faced. To do this, continual monitoring of the state of the art is mandatory.
TRAINING A MUST
Regardless of the quality of PPE, it is only part of the equation when it comes to protecting firefighters. There needs to be corresponding training to address the hazards, introduce new practices, and maintain skill levels.
With respect to structural firefighting, there have been many changes in the work environment including the structure itself and the behavior of the fire. The “office” that the firefighter works in is different on most calls. Firefighters do not have the intimate knowledge of their workspace, so they must know as much as possible about what it could be. This involves continual review and study of building construction and the materials being used. Too often, for a variety of reasons, the study of building construction is neglected, in many cases, unless the department or individual makes a concerted effort to review the changes in building construction often enough to keep up with newer materials and techniques. There should be an annual review of building construct at the minimum.
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Fire behavior is another area where continual education is required but, too often, is put on the back burner. As all firefighters know, the materials that make up the contents of buildings are much more complex than they once were. This increases the assault on firefighters during firefighting operations. The contents create more hazards and risks. Understanding this and how PPE works is critical in the pursuit of a safer work environment. PPE that meets the latest standards offers the best protection, but there remain limitations. All firefighters need to understand these limitations so they can function appropriately.
During the past few years, much research has confirmed that firefighters are at a greater risk of contracting some types of cancers than the general public. There is no doubt this is from the products of combustion in today’s fires. Protecting firefighters involves more than providing PPE that addresses the by-products of combustion. We should know that toxins from fires can enter the body in a variety of ways including absorption. Wearing PPE properly offers great protection but is not the only step necessary. You also must maintain and keep clean the PPE. Immediately after a fire, gross decontamination must be standard operating procedure. You must have a second set of gear so you can properly launder your soiled PPE. You must handle the equipment with best practices in mind every time.
If firefighters are the most important resource of the fire department, and they are, then they should be taken care of first at the conclusion of the incident. This would include gross decontamination and cleaning of turnout gear. It should also include cleaning the firefighters first whenever possible—and it is possible almost every time except when you need to respond to another emergency. Getting harmful toxins off the skin as soon as possible is essential when working to minimize risks posed by these products of combustion. Showers should be mandated for those exposed during firefighting operations.
Much has been written about the clean cab concept and what must be done in fire stations to isolate hazards and remove them as soon as possible. Departments should regularly review their policies and update them when new information is available. All members of the organization must embrace the ideas that will make them safer. Officers must be willing to enforce policies that are intended to reduce risks to firefighters’ health. These are necessities that do not negatively affect the ability of firefighters to do the job and will help promote better health on and after the job.
Another “office” firefighters use is on the highways and roads. This is one of the more dangerous work environments for firefighters. There has been much work done to improve the safety of firefighters while working on the roads. Implement best practices that have been developed. There are continual efforts to look at ways to make these calls even safer. This is accomplished through proper placement of vehicles, use of traffic cones, advance warning, and other practices. Firefighters should wear protective vests to help them be seen.
Protecting firefighters on EMS calls seems to have more acceptance than any other aspect of the job. Rarely will firefighters touch a patient without gloves. When certain hazards are present, or likely to be, firefighters will readily don masks, gowns, or whatever else is needed. Firefighters were very accepting of additional protection when responding to potential cases involving COVID-19. The lessons learned will also help as we continue to provide service on all the other EMS calls. These best practices will offer protection against other threats to firefighters’ health. We must continue to do what is best to minimize risks on all types of calls.
Unfortunately, firefighters have had violence directed at them on emergency calls. Departments need to provide the appropriate safety equipment based on the threats that exist and train accordingly. Evaluate your department’s potential for harm and devise solutions.
Emerging responsibilities and threats have caused departments to look at additional ways to protect firefighters. Certainly, the pandemic has reaffirmed the need for universal precautions on medical calls. Threats of violence have added the need for additional protection. More information regarding the increased risk for cancer among firefighters gives more reason to evaluate protection for firefighters. Departments must stay on top of the issues so firefighters are best prepared to provide service while minimizing risks to themselves.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) and chief of the White Lake Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering Editorial Advisory Board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of th