Fire Investigators Anonymous

Michael L. Donahue outlines a 12-step program for improving the health and safety of fire investigators working amid potential hazards. The safety and health of fire investigators working at fire scenes are often taken for granted, since many incorrectly...


Michael L. Donahue outlines a 12-step program for improving the health and safety of fire investigators working amid potential hazards. The safety and health of fire investigators working at fire scenes are often taken for granted, since many incorrectly assume that by the time they arrive at a...


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Michael L. Donahue outlines a 12-step program for improving the health and safety of fire investigators working amid potential hazards.

The safety and health of fire investigators working at fire scenes are often taken for granted, since many incorrectly assume that by the time they arrive at a fire scene, the potential hazards are eliminated or diminished to the point that they are no longer a concern. The widespread use of synthetic building materials and furnishings manufactured from plastics, however, has greatly increased the amounts and kinds of toxic byproducts of combustion that may result in injury, illness and death. Many investigators fail to recognize that post-fire suppression activities are inherently dangerous since many of the products formed by incomplete combustion may be more hazardous than when they are "free-burning."

Several studies of firefighter occupational safety and health hazards associated with overhaul operations conducted in Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and the United States since the early 1990s have documented that virtually all fire scenes contain numerous toxic byproducts of combustion, several of which are known or suspected human carcinogens, such as acrolein, acrylonitrile, benzene, formaldehyde and vinyl chloride. The health and safety of investigators working at fire scenes are among the most neglected areas of training throughout the fire investigation community and few organizations consider it a priority. Regardless of the scientific and technological advances that have occurred in fire investigation over the past decade, investigating fires to determine their origin and cause still requires investigators to work in potentially hazardous environments. Working in these environments for extended periods without wearing appropriate personal protective clothing and equipment and following strict safety policies and procedures may result in injury, illness and death.

All of the safety and health-related funding, research and studies completed over the past decade supported by organizations such as the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) have primarily focused on the safety and health hazards faced by firefighters associated with firefighting and overhaul operations. However, although investigators typically begin their investigation into the origin and cause of fires after fire suppression operations are completed, they face many of the same safety and health hazards encountered by firefighters. Investigators may be inadvertently exposed to numerous insidious toxicological hazards that may cause serious adverse health effects several days, months or years after exposure. For this reason, it is critical that all organizations representing the interests of fire investigators make the commitment to fund and maintain effective occupational safety and health programs a top priority.

The ability of investigators to safely investigate fires depends on several factors:

  • A commitment by individuals to change their attitudes and practice safe behaviors at scenes
  • An investigator's level of knowledge, training and expertise
  • The use of proper personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • The availability of required resources to safely and effectively manage an emergency incident The development, implementation and adherence to a structured system of strict safety standard operating policies and procedures
  • A comprehensive occupational safety and health program that incorporates mandatory medical surveillance

The Fire Investigator's 12-Step Program

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