The time has come to change the way we think about protecting ourselves from the hazards of the fire environment. We have to adapt our standard operating procedures (SOPs) to look beyond surviving the immediate hazards that we encounter at every incident scene. We have to place the same emphasis...
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The time has come to change the way we think about protecting ourselves from the hazards of the fire environment. We have to adapt our standard operating procedures (SOPs) to look beyond surviving the immediate hazards that we encounter at every incident scene. We have to place the same emphasis on protecting ourselves from potentially lethal health consequences that may not show up for several years after the incident.
That time really arrived several years ago, but we know that it takes time to absorb new information and adjust our thinking before we are ready to change our actions. When we look at all of the information that has been placed in front of us over the past decade relating to firefighter cancer rates, chronic diseases and shortened life spans, the reality should be obvious. The long-term health hazards are just as deadly as burns, asphyxiation and traumatic injuries.
The medical professionals have told us we are routinely exposed to a variety of carcinogens and other contaminants at fires, even relatively minor and seemingly non-threatening fires. If those substances find their way into our bodies, they can plant the seeds that are likely to evolve into a long list of debilitating, life-threatening and life-shortening diseases. We don't even have to inhale them or swallow them — simply getting them on our skin could be sufficient exposure to produce long-term consequences. The facts are evident and the impact is so severe that we should be directing every possible effort toward reducing any avoidable exposure to any of those potentially harmful agents.
When we think about the fire environment, breathing apparatus is the most obvious and probably the most important component of our protective system. We make a direct connection in our minds between respiratory protection and the term immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH). We know that we have to wear breathing apparatus to protect our lungs and breathing passages from the atmospheric hazards that are capable of causing immediate death, but do we give the same thought to protecting ourselves from things in that atmosphere that may cause death several years from now?
A properly trained 21st-century firefighter wouldn't even think about conducting an interior fire attack or working inside a smoke-filled building without a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), but when do we start using air and when do we think it is safe enough to remove our masks?
When we are going into a burning building, do we wait until we encounter moderate or heavy smoke before we "mask-up" or do we start using air when we encounter the first hint of smoke? Knowing that our air supply is limited, we are often tempted to wait until we really need an SCBA before we start using it. We don't want to shorten our working time by using some of that precious stored air before it is absolutely necessary, so we conveniently ignore light to moderate smoke and wait until we encounter heavier smoke before we start using our SCBA.
The same thought process applies when the fire is knocked down. It is always tempting to remove our masks as soon as the smoke lifts and it is usually much easier to conduct overhaul without the encumbrance of an SCBA. We like to think that the danger goes away with the visible smoke and assume that a little residual contamination can't really be dangerous.
If we are on the roof of a burning building, we feel secure standing back a few feet and watching smoke escape and dissipate into the atmosphere. We assume that the smoke won't hurt us unless we make a special effort to inhale the heavy concentration close to the point where it is escaping. Once that smoke has been diluted by some fresh air, we tell ourselves that it is probably safe enough to breathe. The same old thinking told us it was OK to attack a car fire without a mask, as long as we kept our faces out of the really bad smoke.