The Fire Scene: How Safe Is Your Firehouse?

I’m sure every firehouse and fire station has some type of hazard that could result in an injury to a firefighter. A loose step on the stairway, a door that slams shut or a continuously wet floor in the bathroom. Those are not what I’m talking about here. Actually, I’m talking about a single hazardous situation that causes several issues that can kill you. I’m talking about diesel fumes.

Look on the wall at any FDNY firehouse and you will see a plaque that reads “These quarters protected by the Dan DeFranco clean air system.” Dan DeFranco was a tireless champion of his fellow FDNY firefighters and he almost singlehandedly saw to it that diesel fume removal systems were installed in every FDNY firehouse. This is no small issue and the solution comes with no small price.

What you really need to do is look at the conditions that are created by fire apparatus with diesel engines that are not equipped with diesel fume removal equipment and are started and backed into firehouses where firefighters and officers “live.” There was no diesel fume removal equipment in firehouses during my first years on the job and, frankly, it was hardly noticeable. We did see a large, black soot circle on the ceiling above the engine and another over the truck, but it didn’t seem dangerous to us.

What we didn’t see was the soot and other deadly contaminants on our dishes in the kitchen or the diesel residue on the bedsheets and furniture throughout the firehouse. I do remember a firefighter bringing one of the old tube TVs from the firehouse kitchen to a TV repair shop around the corner from the firehouse. When the firefighter went back to the shop to pick up the TV, the repairman told him, “Don’t bring a TV in here that you pulled out of a fire!” The firefighter told him the TV was not from a burned-out building, but from the firehouse kitchen. The man opened the back of the TV and showed the firefighter a heavy layer of black soot over every component. That soot was from the diesel fumes emitted by our apparatus.

This issue was raised and the department, the union and many others became involved to find a solution. I do remember one solution: the department painted apparatus floor ceilings black! After some yelling and screaming, the department had a diesel fume removal system installed in every firehouse. The systems were modern, efficient and easy to use. Like anything else in the fire service, there was a little gnashing of teeth and bellyaching, but rather quickly the systems were installed and working.

An “elephant trunk” hangs down from above each apparatus and glides along with the rig as it drives out of quarters. It automatically disconnects and has no impact on response times or unit response. When the company returns, the firefighter who opens the apparatus door grabs the trunk and attaches it to the apparatus exhaust pipe as it backs into the bay. No diesel fumes are exhausted into the firehouse. No diesel residue is layering our furniture, kitchen cabinets, countertops and work surfaces. There is no black soot on the firehouse windows.

The real reason I wrote this column is that the FDNY is only one of more than 30,000 fire departments in the U.S. I have discovered that lots of fire departments have no diesel fume removal systems. None! These are not departments with no funds and 30-year-old apparatus. In fact, some have lots of new equipment and technology in their stations and on their rigs.

If your apparatus are powered by diesel motors and are kept in the firehouse, and you have no diesel fume removal equipment, you and your brother and sister firefighters may be exposed to dangerous or even deadly levels of diesel exhaust. Some new stations are constructed with the living quarters on the opposite side of the building from the apparatus floor and are equipped with ventilation systems. But many older firehouses are not protected and the dangerous condition persists.

Next time you walk into your firehouse, take a look at the ceilings and other surfaces. Talk with your fellow firefighters and ask about diesel fume exposure. The work we do as firefighters is already too hazardous. Let’s make sure we last longer than the firehouse TV! n


John J. Salka Jr. presents “5 Ingredients for an Excellent Company Officer” and “Do You Know Your SCBA?” at Firehouse Expo 2013, July 23-27 in Baltimore, MD.