Exposures and Fire Apparatus Cabs

keeping it safe robert tutterow
robert tutterow

This column is a continuation of the topic of exposures as they relate to fire department vehicles.

The genesis of this topic stems from the Fire Service Occupational Cancer Symposium conducted by the Fire Service Occupational Cancer Alliance, which is affiliated with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. This month’s column focuses on cab interiors.


Seating is one of the primary focuses of cab exposure. The issue is compounded in that for most departments, it also exposes the public. How so? We sit in our seats while wearing contaminated gear. We go on EMS calls as first responders and sit in the seats that are cross-contaminated from the dirty personal protective equipment (PPE). We then go into public places and private dwellings to render aid and further spread our contamination.

How can this be prevented? Foremost, every effort should be made to keep contaminated PPE, including self-contained breathing apparatus, out of the cab. However, this may not always be possible. Furthermore, we do not have the ability to know “how clean is clean.” Research is currently underway to find the most effective ways to decontaminate PPE, but we must assume that it is probably not 100 percent effective. A caveat: Although cleaning may not be 100 percent effective, that should never be an excuse to not clean and decontaminate. Through science-based research, we know that cleaning is very effective, even if not 100 percent effective.

The attendees of the vehicles and exposures workshop at the Fire Service Occupational Cancer Symposium were asked to participate in a post conference survey. One of the questions was: “What changes/improvements are needed to make vehicle seats easer to decontaminate?” Responses included make them nonporous and steam-cleanable; less cloth; smooth nonporous surfaces that can be sprayed and wiped easily; nonabsorbent covers that are easily removed and cleaned; and no cloth seats.

Another possible solution was using seat belt covers. These could be disposable or easily removed for decontamination. If departments adopt this solution, they should have a clean second set available. It was noted that seat covers for personal vehicles are readily available for applications such as preventing sweat from getting on seats after a workout or long-distance run.

Cab Floors

Another question on the post symposium survey was: “What changes are needed in cab interiors to make them easier to decontaminate?” Cab flooring was one of the focal points. The responses included less texture; take examples from ambulances—i.e., flush, easy-to-clean materials; and possible drain holes in the floor so they can be rinsed.

Most cab floors in North American fire apparatus are a black textured material. The color hides dirt (contaminants), and the textured material provides needed slip resistance. Is it no longer wise to select flooring that hides contaminants? Is it time to look at floor coverings that are slip-resistant but not textured so they are easier to clean? Some departments currently specify aluminum diamond treadplate for the flooring. This seems to be a better option for detecting contaminants and for ease of cleaning. The European fire service often uses a light-colored flooring made of a semismooth slip-resistant vinyl. It is a product commonly found on stairway steps.

Interior Cab Design, Etc.

Many of the respondents included the following in their responses: rounded edges/seams/interfaces; smoother surfaces; few to no 90-degree corners; light-colored surfaces; less clutter—i.e., minimal things bolted down like TICs, MDTs, etc.; plastic cover over the instrument panel; and no compartments inside the cab. In addition, it was stressed that grab handles should be wiped clean as often as hands are cleaned. Grab handles need to be slip-resistant, and this is typically accomplished using a textured finish, coating, or covering. As with cab flooring, there are materials on the market to consider that are more easily cleaned while not compromising slip resistance.

A couple of other issues were identified that can help with keeping cabs clean. First was the concept of an HVAC filter that is easily replaced by end users. The idea comes from particulate filters used in building HVAC systems. The filter could be replaced after every working fire or regular maintenance cycle. Second was the idea of using ozone decontamination technology for cleaning cab interiors.

A concurrent theme among the responses was that if the cab is designed and built for easier cleaning, it will get cleaned more often and more thoroughly.

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.).

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