May Roundtable: Firefighter Safety During Overhaul

By John "Skip" Coleman

Not to sound like an old, broken record, but things change. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not. In Toledo, we created a manditory mask policy in 1988. I wrote the policy. We were sure that by enacting this safety procedure (which stated, and I paraphrase: “Self-contained breath apparatus (SCBA) shall be worn and 'in-service' [on and operating] in any building or atmosphere that contains or could eventually contain smoke.”) we would add years to the life of new firefighters. At that time the average life expectancy for a firefighter was 57 years. Soon, the policy became the norm and was followed to the letter the vast majority of the time.
However, we learned in the mid to late 1990 that even after visible smoke was removed from the building there were still invisible dangers lurking inside the fire building. Not only were carbon monoxide levels still very high, other toxins and carcinogens remain for a long time after the fire is darkened and the smoke is cleared.

This presented a problem for the task of overhaul. Many injuries occur to firefighters while they conduct overhaul. As you know, overhaul is a process where we, in essence, break stuff. We rip it open to assure that all hidden fire is extinguished. We push heavy objects out of windows and down stairs to remove them from the fire area. We do this in (normally) extremely warm and humid conditions after we have exerted ourselves in the initial extinguishment process.

To assure the safest atmosphere possible, Toledo enacted another safety policy (affectionately referred to by the firefighters as “All mask, all the time.”) SCBAs were required to be worn and in-service anytime a firefighter was inside the fire structure, including during the overhaul, pick-up, and investigation (cause and determination) phase.

Some believed that this was an unnecessary and in some ways, an unsafe requirement. Already fatigued firefighters were required to wear additional equipment that limits visibility during the overhaul phase.

That brings me to this months question: Do you conduct atmospheric monitoring at fires and what additional steps if any are taken to protect firefighters during the overhaul phase of a fire?

CLICK HERE to e-mail us your reply. Please keep your response to 250 words and include your name, rank, department, city, and state.. Replies are due by May 25 and will be published in a subsequent article later this month. 

John “Skip” Coleman retired as assistant chief from the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue. He is a technical editor of Fire Engineering; a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board; and author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997), Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), and Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 2008).

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