The “Clean Cab Concept” is a misnomer. It is an actual design and materials fact of the here and now. It is no longer a concept and has not been for a few years.
There has been recent discussion about the need for cleaner cabs and some outright resistance to the thought. Questions and statements include the following: Why bother? It does not make any difference. We need a little dirt and contamination to build up our immunity systems. There are areas of focus related to contamination that are more important than the cab. The risks are all overblown.
I have been able to attend a few trade shows in the past few months. (The lack of trade shows during the pandemic left a void in the fire service.) It is my observation that adoption of the “cleaner cab” is catching on in some areas of the country far quicker than in other areas. I must admit that I am a bit surprised this has not caught on quicker in all regions of the country because it is not that expensive.
The cleaner cab is important because it is the “conduit” between the fire scene and the fire station. Almost all contamination within a fire station is brought in by the apparatus. As I have referenced in a previous column, firefighters are somewhat like farmers, according to Paul Erickson, the fire station architect who pioneered the hot zone design of fire stations. He says that firefighters harvest carcinogens, load them in the apparatus, and bring them back to the fire station for distribution. Hence, contaminated cab equals contaminated station. The cleaner cab is a systems approach to mitigate contaminants.
An often-forgotten item in the cleaner cab design is the grab handles. I recently saw a new rig on display that had all metal grab handles that would function quite well as a rasp. They were definitely slip-resistant (which is important), but I am not sure how much skin you might lose if you grabbed it tight and pulled hard with a wet bare hand. The point is that this grab handle would be almost impossible to thoroughly clean unless it was removed from the apparatus and soaked in soapy water before being pressure-washed. (Yes, that is an exaggeration, but the point remains.) So, here was an apparatus that would almost always have contaminated grab handles. The firefighter touches the grab handles and then grabs the shoulder/seat belt harness, cross contaminating the harness and pulling the harness directly against the body. No contaminated personal protective equipment (PPE) was involved in this scenario.
There is another piece of equipment that is gaining traction in the market to clean cabs. It is an air disinfecting system. These systems are popular in ambulances, and the fire service has started installing them in apparatus cabs with the emergence of the COVID-19 virus. These systems seem to be highly effective for what they are intended to do, and I think all fire departments should give them serious consideration. These types of products appear to use a chlorine dioxide-based disinfectant. Chlorine dioxide is effective on hard surfaces, but there is a lack of evidence of its effectiveness on soft surfaces such as textiles. The buyer should beware that these systems are not a “cure-all,” as some ads imply, for eliminating carcinogens. If you sprayed the fire station kitchen with a disinfectant, would you stop washing the dishes?
The “cleaner cab” may not be as critical to a department that has a program in place that prohibits dirty and contaminated equipment in the cab. Maybe all PPE is bagged and placed elsewhere for return to the station. However, there are a lot of opportunities for cabs to still be contaminated. For example, a fire department bags its PPE but forgets that its contaminated hose came in contact with the T-shirts being worn by the firefighters as they reloaded it.
The entire contamination control initiative is a risk management process. There is likely no way we will ever eliminate carcinogens or find a way to completely remove them from our working environment. However, if we can reduce them by 90% or more, which I think is doable, then we can have a big positive impact on reducing firefighter cancer. Let’s do all we can and overcome the excuses.
Think about it—even without the hazards of carcinogens, what are the advantages of having a dirty cab?
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 40-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.).