Vehicles and Exposures

keeping it safe robert tutterow
Robert Tutterow

In September, I had the honor of delivering a presentation titled “Vehicles and Exposures” at the Fire Service Occupational Cancer Symposium held in Phoenix, Arizona.

The Alliance is an output of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Almost 600 fire service personnel attended. A lot of work and attention has, and continues to be, devoted to cleaning personal protective equipment (PPE) as a way to minimize exposure to carcinogens. In the past three years, there has also been attention being devoted to carcinogens in the fire station. However, there has been very little attention given to the conduit that brings carcinogens to the fire station—fire apparatus. This issue is just now beginning to appear on the fire service’s and apparatus and component manufacturers’ radar. The presentation was formatted in a manner to provide thought-provoking ideas and solicit feedback on what needs to be done to minimize exposures as they relate to vehicles.


Research into the carcinogens found in vehicles is extremely limited. I was only able to find one snippet of research related to the issue, which was part of a study conducted at the Illinois Fire Service Institute in collaboration with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the UL Firefighter Safety Institute. There is indication that toxins are being emitted into the apparatus cab by simply placing dirty PPE in the cab. The study constructed two Tyvek®-lined enclosures to simulate a six-person cab. Six sets of turnout gear were hung in each enclosure. One enclosure contained contaminated gear and the other contained decontaminated gear. The sets remained in the enclosures for 15 minutes to simulate a return trip from a fire scene. The off-gassing was measured in each enclosure. From the measurements, it was determined that “… firefighters could inhale a number of chemicals in the period following a fire response.”

Here are some of the thoughts that were shared with the audience.

SCBA in the Cab

This was described as the “elephant in the room.” Should self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) be prohibited inside the cab? It is difficult to thoroughly decontaminate SCBA on the scene. Several departments have removed SCBA from the cab as a measure to facilitate seat/shoulder belt usage and provide a more comfortable seat. Contaminated SCBA is now another reason to consider removing SCBA from the cab. Proponents of this measure also say it gives firefighters a chance to assess the fire scene before initiating action. Opponents to the idea say it adds to the time it takes to facilitate rescue as well as requires additional compartment space.

Cab Interiors

There might be areas of cab design that can make decontamination easier. For example, seats could be covered with a material that is more easily cleaned. Or, perhaps there is value in providing disposable seat covers to use during fire response. Decontaminating cab flooring should also be a consideration. Many floors are rubber or vinyl with a rough texture to minimize slippage. However, some cabs have aluminum diamond plate for flooring. A smoother vinyl or rubber slip-resistant flooring is popular in European apparatus cabs. Apparatus manufacturers should consider ease of floor decontamination. For example, hard-to-reach areas such as hard corners could possibly be rounded. In addition, dark colors are common in interior cabs. Maybe it is time to use light colors so it is easier to see dirt—i.e., contamination.

On-Scene Diesel Exhaust Exposure

Firefighters are aware of the carcinogens in diesel exhaust, and most departments have addressed this exposure in the station through source-capture, ventilation systems, or both (recommended). However, little attention has been given to exhaust exposure on scene. There are some steps that can be taken. For example, auxiliary power units (APUs) use much smaller diesel engines and generate far fewer carcinogens than the big diesels. This is in addition to tremendous fuel savings realized by using APUs. Also, there is an onboard source capture system that is typically automatically activated when the apparatus starts up to leave the station. A benefit of this system is that it also works while on the scene. For trucks manufactured prior to 2007, it requires manual activation. For trucks built since 2007, the system runs all the time and does not require manual activation.

On-Scene Decontamination Kits

Experts agree that on-scene gross decontamination is essential and that this should be done while a firefighter is still wearing his PPE, including using the SCBA. One of the questions posed to the audience was what should be included in a decontamination kit carried aboard the apparatus. Wipes are becoming very popular. But, what is needed for on-scene decontamination of PPE? One company offers a shower head that can be attached to the apparatus as well as reusable bags to collect contaminated gear. Task Force Tips is working on adapting its PRO/Pak foam unit to make a decontamination unit. Both tools use the water from the apparatus. Also, apparatus can be designed or modified so that the engine heat exchanger can be used to heat the water used in washing down firefighters and equipment.

Other Considerations

The audience was also asked to consider the feasibility of mobile decontamination units that could be deployed in much the same way as air and light support units. The value of foam application during suppression as a tool to minimize exposures was also posed.

In future columns, I will discuss the feedback generated by the participants.

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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