I’ve now been a Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire and EMS Department retiree for 13-plus years. One of the positive aspects of having the opportunity to write articles for FireRescue1 is that I’ve been able to stay close to the job – a job I loved as much on the last day as I did on my first.
The downside of this work, however, is that the more I've learned about the increased risk of cancer from exposure to the toxic chemicals, chemical compounds and carcinogens contained in structural fire smoke, the more scared I’ve become.
As such, it’s important that we continue to share critical information to help expand your knowledge and understanding of the cancer risk reduction process through better handling and cleaning of all the elements of your NFPA 1971-compliant structural firefighting ensemble. We’ll do this here by looking at possible exposure points and how you should handle PPE cleaning.
POINT OF EXPOSURE #1 – AT THE SCENE
Every firefighter and fire officer should now be informed and educated about the risks that come from exposure to fireground toxins. Many fire departments have enacted standard operating guidelines (SOGs) for the initial risk reduction (IRR) of contaminants from a firefighter’s PPE once they exit the hazard area (hot zone). But the reduction of risk for the firefighter who was wearing that PPE is just one phase of a safe and effective IRR SOG.
As SOG of this nature must also include what happens after the firefighter has doffed their PPE following IRR because that PPE now presents a splash hazard, a skin contact hazard, and an inhalation hazard (from the any off-gassing) for anyone handling that exposed PPE, including SCBA units. The appropriate level of PPE for those personnel is Level B protection consisting of a fluid impervious garment (e.g., PVC rain suit or Tyvek coveralls), facial protection (e.g., SCBA, APR, or N95 mask with full face shield), and rubber gloves. Protected personnel should as quickly as possible further isolate the hazards presented by that wet PPE, bagging the equipment in heavy gauge plastic bags for transport back to the fire station for the appropriate laundering and cleaning.
POINT OF EXPOSURE #2 – BACK AT THE STATION
All personnel must shower and change into clean clothing before beginning any PPE cleaning and laundering of bagged PPE.
After showering, and before beginning the upcoming work of cleaning and laundering of equipment and PPE, an appropriate option for personnel would be cotton/blend coveralls. Coveralls can be shed after the work is done, saving a clean uniform or change of civilian clothes.
Before opening any bag containing PPE or SCBA, firefighters should protect themselves from the potential contact, inhalation or absorption hazard by equipping themselves with the following PPE:
- N-95 respirator or an air-purifying respirator (APR)
- Full face shield
- Tyvek coveralls or disposable liquid-resistant gown or rubber lab apron
- Rubber gloves
Depending on the ambient air temperature and humidity, the inhalation hazard from off-gassing from that bagged gear may have increased. This is because the interior apparatus compartment temperature where it was transported can act as an incubator that can exacerbate that off-gassing.
Keep all PPE and SCBA that needs cleaning or laundering isolated to the area of the fire station where that work will take place. Anyone doing the work must stay in the same area until the tasks are completed. Treat the area and everything in it as a hazmat hot zone and act accordingly.[See Related: PPE cleaning: Avoid 'downstream' contamination]
Washer/extractor machines have greatly enhanced the safety, effectiveness and efficiency for personnel tasked with cleaning the coat, pants and hoods of the firefighting PPE. But until recently, there was no such option for the safe, effective and efficient cleaning of helmets, boots gloves and other small equipment, for example, 4-gas monitors, hand lights and hand tools.
BETTER CLEANING TECHNOLOGY AND RISK REDUCTION
The SOLO RESCUE Decon Cleaning Machine from RESCUE Intellitech is the other half of a complete PPE cleaning and cancer risk reduction system, along with your department’s washer/extractors. Invented by a Swedish firefighter, the SOLO RESCUE Decon Cleaning Machine is the first machine of its kind that can effectively and efficiently clean those helmets, boots, gloves and other small equipment, while minimizing potential exposure to firefighters.
The Solo Rescue Decon Cleaning Machine is a fully enclosed system that can clean two complete SCBA units, including facepieces, in an 8-minute cleaning cycle. It also has a 3-minute cleaning cycle for boots, helmets, gloves and other small equipment.
Here’s how the SOLO RESCUE can improve fire departments’ cleaning and risk reduction process:
- Reduces the potential for contact or inhalation exposure to firefighters handling dirty PPE and SCBA. Firefighters unbag the items, put the items into the machine and push the start button.
- Reduces the amount of time necessary for the cleaning of SCBA and other equipment. While some personnel are taking care of coats and pants using the washer/extractor, others can be cleaning SCBA (8 minutes per cleaning cycle) and boots and gloves and helmets (3 minutes per cleaning cycle).
- Reduces your fire department’s expenses for water. The SOLO RESCUE has a 29-gallon reservoir that retains water used during the wash and rinse cycles. Depending upon the degree of cleaning necessary, that same water, which is only used during the wash cycle, can handle three to four cleaning cycles before needing to be emptied. The same water is NOT used for the rinse cycle, as the system uses a dedicated second water line that ensures that only fresh water is used for the rinse cycle.
- Reduces a fire department’s expenses for cleaning agents, as the system includes an automatic cleaning agent dispensing feature to ensure the correct amount is used.
- Reduces potential exposure to dirty water. All contaminants remain in the machine until the contents of the reservoir are discharged down the drain.
A big step forward
The cleaning and risk reduction process required to return PPE and SCBA to service has become more important as we've learned more about the hazards to which firefighters are exposed every time they engage in structural firefighting.
The introduction of the washer/extractor for cleaning coats, pants and hoods represented a huge step toward safer, more effective and more efficient cleaning of those PPE elements. Continuing to find ways to use technology that shields firefighters from exposure to PPE, SCBA, and all other equipment that needs to be cleaned back at the fire station, should be the focus of every fire department – because the exposure risk doesn’t end when the fire is out.
Editor’s note: How do you currently clean your helmets and boots? Share your tips in the comments.
[Read next: How to buy turnout gear]
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