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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Respiratory protection is only one aspect of a systematic approach to minimize our potential exposure to fire scene contaminants. We also have to recognize that our protective clothing, tools and equipment become contaminated with every exposure to a hazardous environment. We have to clean our stuff to remove those contaminants, unless we think it is safe to continually re-expose ourselves to those potentially deadly products.
When a requirement for annual cleaning of all protective clothing was incorporated into National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1851, the immediate reaction of many firefighters was to add it to the list of unnecessary, expensive and inconvenient arbitrary regulations that are making our lives unbearable. In most fire departments, a firefighter who walks around in sparkling clean turnouts is quickly recognized as a rookie or branded as a sidewalk spectator who avoids getting close enough to the action to get dirty. The salty old jake who finally wears out a set of grungy old turnouts will look for the first opportunity to get the new set dirty enough to regain the respect that is due. Now, NFPA wants us to keep our clothing clean and send it out for certified cleaning and inspection every year — what next?
If we think about the kinds of contaminants that are absorbed into our clothing and equipment, we will quickly recognize that the time has come for that thought process to be abandoned. We have to adjust our behavior to coincide with our new understanding of the hazards of our work environment. Our protective clothing must be professionally cleaned on a regular schedule — immediately if it is obviously contaminated. The clothes we wear to a fire, under our protective clothing, should be removed promptly and isolated from the family laundry to avoid sharing those contaminants. We should shower after every fire to remove any traces of contaminants from our bodies, before it is absorbed through the skin. We should also recognize the importance of keeping our apparatus and equipment clean. Maybe the old white-glove inspection program was more important than we ever thought.