Firefighting Air Quality

What You Need to Know About Firefighter Air Contamination

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Date March 28, 2022
Date March 28, 2022
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There are many important health and safety concerns in the fire service. One of these sometimes overlooked issues is the contaminated air that firefighters breathe in while they are either traveling in the cab of an apparatus or on duty at the fire station. Unfortunately, the contaminated air can cause several health challenges including cancer and exposure to contagious viruses and infectious diseases.

Many fire departments take proactive actions to reduce the effects of fire contaminants by washing their bunker gear often, having a second set of turnouts available to the crew, cleaning the fire hoses after the call, and wiping down exposed surfaces, just to name a few.

After a fire, the air in the cab is polluted with volatile organic compounds, called VOCs, particulates and soot, as well as aerosol carrying viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. The term “aerosol carrying viruses” refers to viruses that are exhaled by an infected person that will remain suspended in the air for a period of time without significant dilution, and can remain in the air for prolonged periods due to air currents. Additionally, the VOCs will continue to off-gas and become suspended in the air for a long time. As these harmful threats are circulated inside the cab or ambulance, they can be inhaled by the occupants. Even rolling down the windows or running the air conditioner/heater actually stirs these threats in the air making it worse. Adding to this threat is the close quarters that the crew in the apparatus and ambulances operate in, which can put them at more risk.

The smell of smoke is actually the smell of off-gassing VOCs and particulates/soot, and many can be harmful. These threats have been right under our nose all along, but only more recently have been the focus of many departments who want to proactively protect their crew.

The threats are real. According to statistics published by the Center for Disease Control and The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), between 2002-2019, two-thirds of the line-of-duty-deaths among firefighters were due to cancer. In 2020, one-third of first responder deaths were due to Covid-19. By any measure, those numbers are staggering and unacceptable.

So, how do you properly protect people in an enclosed space from these threats?  First, you need a solution that can lower the risk by mitigating the VOCs, particulates/soot and aerosol carrying viruses without creating harmful byproducts. This solution will need to capture the multiple threats and contain them in suspension until they are no longer a threat. The system will also need to work well with the windows opened or closed, the air conditioner/heater running or not and automatically turn on/off with the truck. The system will need to work well in all atmospheric conditions including hot, cold, humid and dry environments. If this sounds like a tall order, it is, but there are systems out there that can do exactly that.