The dangers for our intrepid firefighters do not necessarily end when the flames are extinguished. The potential for exposure to a wide variety of toxic substances like asbestos, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and carcinogenic volatile organic compounds like benzene persists until the turnout gear that firefighters use to protect themselves has been properly removed, decontaminated, and contained.
A 2016 study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health determined that firefighters are at a higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and that cancer-related deaths among firefighters are 14% higher than that of the general public.
The overall toxicity of a fire depends upon many factors, not the least of which is the materials being burned. Modern synthetic building and furniture materials tend to burn faster and hotter, creating fires that tend to produce more hazardous combustion byproducts. While exposures to these substances while fighting a fire are not likely to be eliminated, minimizing exposures to these contaminants during and between fires can be done. To that end, Terracon’s industrial hygiene team in Arizona helped examine this issue while consulting on the design of two new firehouses in Goodyear, Arizona.
It was not uncommon in previous years for firefighters to wear their turnout gear back to the firehouse after a call and even store it by their beds in sleeping quarters to quickly don for the next fire. Exposure to the contaminants lingering on that gear could be significant. Their living quarters, vehicles, and locker rooms can be cross-contaminated and become sources of continued exposure. With an irregular cleaning schedule for turnout gear, the exposure could potentially last days at a time.
While modern decontamination procedures have helped to address this issue, the new fire stations in Goodyear that opened in early 2021 take the issue to the next level. They were designed with health and safety in mind. In 2019 the design of the new stations began, and a Terracon certified industrial hygienist consulted with local firefighters to assess their procedures, discuss their concerns, and design a safer facility. The completed stations now incorporate state-of-the-industry features that reflect practical insights provided by veteran firefighters and the best hygiene practices introduced by the Terracon industrial hygiene team.
Field decontamination procedures for use directly following fire exposure are aimed at decreasing exposure to contaminated gear and equipment as soon as practicable. Once back at the station, modern decontamination facilities are designed to minimize follow-up exposure when cleaning gear. Exposure controls recommended by Terracon industrial hygienists include:
Firefighters tend not to let the inherent dangers of running into a burning building keep them from performing their duty. Terracon was proud to be part of the team that helped build the new Goodyear fire stations. Lowering exposure risk between calls now is important and can potentially lead to healthier futures for these brave men and women.
It is our intent to publish a follow-up article to report the efficacy of our work in the near future.
Mike Crandall, CIH, is a senior industrial hygienist in the Terracon's Phoenix office. He has more than 40 years of experience in industrial hygiene and building investigations, working with residential, commercial, and institutional clients.