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 point where we have to make a significant change in our thinking is the way we characterize smoke. We used to think of smoke as a substance that comes in a variety of colors and thicknesses. We may see heavy, dark smoke at one fire and wispy gray smoke at another fire, but we tended to think of it as just different varieties of smoke. A lot of heavy smoke was obviously bad, but a little bit of light smoke shouldn't be harmful.
That way of thinking would make sense if we could be sure that the "bad stuff" is only present in the really thick, nasty smoke that obscures our vision. Some of us used to believe that as long as we could see where we were going, the atmosphere must be safe to breathe. We also used to think that carbon monoxide (CO) was the critical factor and as long as the CO level was below the published IDLH threshold, it was OK to work without a mask. We were comfortable blowing some black stuff out of our respiratory passages and comparing the black streaks on each other's faces after a successful battle with the Red Devil — a little soot couldn't be harmful and getting dirty is an unavoidable part of the job.
Now we know that smoke is really a complex mixture of particles, droplets, fibers, molecules and other microscopic components that can find their way into our respiratory, digestive and circulatory systems through several different paths. Once they get into our fertile interior biological systems, they can plant themselves in locations where they can start a process that eventually leads to a life-threatening disease.
We have to stop thinking about "smoke" as the problem and start thinking about all of those individual microscopic components within the smoke as potential sources of future disease. Those individual microscopic components represent the same types of risks that we associate with blood-borne pathogens. Once we change our focus to the microscopic level, we will recognize the importance of doing everything feasible to prevent the contamination of our vital systems.
One Bad Seed Can Kill
There is no law of physics that requires all of the potentially toxic particles and molecules to remain within the heavy smoke cloud. Every visible or invisible component of smoke is a free agent that can define its own path within the atmosphere. When we walk into situations where there is just a little bit of smoke in the atmosphere, we could be inhaling the one seed that evolves into cancer months or years from now.
If we really want to protect ourselves in the long term, we will "mask-up" at the entry point, before we need an SCBA to enable us to penetrate where we want to go. If there is any indication of smoke or contaminants in the air, we should be using our certified pure air supply, whether it is a minor kitchen fire, a smoky basement fire, a car fire in the middle of a parking lot or an outside trash fire. The simple strategy should be "Don't breathe smoke — or anything else that may be harmful."
A conscientious respiratory protection plan should ensure that every potential exposure to contaminated air — even slightly contaminated air — is avoided. That approach requires a significant adjustment in the way we manage our air and manage fireground operations. We have to be prepared to cycle crews into and out of the fire environment at a rate that is directly proportional to their operating time "on air." If we plan on maintaining an interior operation beyond the duration of a single cylinder, we will need to have a backup crew ready to go in and replace each crew when it is time to come outside.
When we incorporate a realistic approach to air management, we can predict and keep track of the time that a crew can operate on air before they have to be replaced. That time should be calculated on the assumption that they will be coming out of the hazardous area before the low-pressure alarms on their SCBA are activated. The days of waiting until the alarm sounds to think about exiting should also be in the past.
We will also need a reliable system to replace or refill air cylinders at a rate equal to the consumption rate. If we run out of air at the fire scene, we cannot keep on operating in a mode that exposes our firefighters to any level of smoke. Air supply has to be viewed in the same manner as water supply. We cannot change the rules and allow ourselves to work without respiratory protection because we failed to establish an adequate system to meet the demand for air.