A View from the Safety Officer's Seat: Fire Smoke and Safety

By Troy Clements

Back in 2011, I accepted a safety officer position with Pike Township Fire Department in Indianapolis, Indiana. At the time, 16 years of experience followed me into that seat, which was accompanied by great expectations, enthusiasm and a bit of nervousness about the unknown.  One of the primary personal objectives for the job was to bring a greater awareness about the dangers of fire smoke into fireground operations. The year prior I had the opportunity to attend a "Know Your Smoke: The Dangers of Fire Smoke Exposure" training program offered by the Fire Smoke Coalition, Inc. That training program forever changed the way I think about smoke.

One might believe that if you tell firefighters that fire smoke is killing them or is eventually going to, they would be more conscious about not breathing the stuff. However, soot from fire smoke is seen as a marker of success in our profession. The dirtier the bunker gear--the better. It's the trademark of achievement. So accepting that fire smoke is one of the job's deadliest enemies requires using the dreaded word "change."

After assuming the safety seat at Pike, I made it a personal mission to educate all of the firefighters in our department and started by visiting every house utilizing the information contained in the "Know Your Smoke" training program. The mini-program gave an overview of the toxicology of fire smoke and how to prevent the exposure through proper air management protocols and atmospheric monitoring on every fire scene. Many willingly embraced the fact that smoke was going to kill them and altered their behavior. Then there were those who were scared into changing their work habits. Whatever the reason, I didn't care. Every change made involves tactical operations that will most assuredly extend the lives of our firefighters.

Atmospheric Monitoring

Starting the process of atmospheric monitoring at all structure fires was an eye-opener. We do this not just for firefighters' health and safety, but for the civilians we're sworn to protect. The following were a couple of fires worth noting.

The first was a simple residence fire. It was a one-story home with approximate 1,400 square feet. The fire was mostly in the attic. On arrival, crews had heavy smoke showing and made an aggressive interior attack, pulled ceilings, and provided some horizontal ventilation. A vent hole was cut in the roof and almost immediately the carbon monoxide (CO) level dropped from over 700 ppm to 50 ppm. That was before the positive pressure ventilation (PPV) fan was started. When the gas-powered fan was turned on, the CO jumped just over 300 ppm, and within 10 minutes it dropped down to 10 ppm. The fan was stopped and readings returned to normal. The hydrogen cyanide (HCN) reading peaked to 25.9 ppm and quickly went to 0 ppm upon good ventilation. Take into account all of the fire was above.

The second fire of note was a garden-style apartment fire which involved four units on a very hot and humid day. The building was good size--probably 200 x 50 feet. The fire was on the C side right in the middle and involved both lower and upper units. The fire was quickly knocked down and overhaul was done. On this fire, I placed the Ibrid MX6 in the upper apartment in the kitchen and left it for the duration of the fire. When I placed it on the kitchen counter, I noticed the reading of the CO was "OR," meaning out of range, and HCN was at 100 ppm. About 45 minutes to an hour after overhaul and rehab was done, a resident asked me to walk through her apartment to make sure it was safe. I took the monitor--again to make sure it was safe. He apartment was on the first floor of the A-B corner, the farthest point away from the fire. As soon as I walked into the apartment, the CO was reading 64 ppm. We ventilated her apartment horizontally and the air returned to normal in 10 minutes.

This leads me to my next point. How many structures do we give back to the occupants without doing a thorough walk-through to make sure it's safe? How many times have you been called back to the fire scene to find another sick person from a few apartments over not feeling well? Are the EMS crews even thinking about smoke inhalation so long after the fire is extinguished?  As a result of this fire, we now walk through all of the buildings adjacent to the fire and perform atmospheric monitoring to make sure we're not allowing innocent civilians to return to a toxic environment.

Overhaul and C.U.T.

Pike now has a new, simple standard operating guideline (SOG) for overhaul: Stay on air through overhaul. If firefighters are tearing things up, turning things over, and looking for hidden fires, air is on. This policy forces us to limit our exposure to the by-products of combustion because we have to come out and change bottles.  It also sends us to rehab (per National Fire Protection Association Standard 1584) and it gets us ready for the next call much quicker. And, believe it or not, because of this new SOG, none of us feel like crap for the rest of the day.

Another process added was shared by the Jacksonville (FL) Fire Department. The concept is called C.U.T., an acronym for Clean-Up-Teams, in which extra companies come in later in the operation. Their sole job is to perform overhaul and they wear SCBA during the entire process. C.U.T. also allows us to get the first-in crews back into service quicker.

Ultimately, the "safety seat" at Pike became the foundation for adopting some life-saving changes and it all started because I attended a "Know Your Smoke: The Dangers of Fire Smoke Exposure" training program. Change did not happen overnight and there were many challenges along the way, but, it did occur. That's the ultimate goal for any safety officer, or for that matter any firefighter who understands and embraces the need to make the job safer. In the end, it's really about having the courage to stand up and take care of each other. Robert Dean was my first fire chief and he taught me a very valuable lesson on the first day of training. He said, "You owe it to the profession and yourself to leave it better than how you found it."

Troy ClementsTroy Clements is currently a lieutenant on Engine Company 113 at the Pike Township Fire Department located on the Northwest Side of Indianapolis, Indiana. Troy has been in the fire service since 1995. He has many fire certifications and EMS certifications including Hazardous Materials Technician, Safety Officer, Paramedic along with multiple technical rescue certifications. He has worked in the volunteer fire service as well as the career fire service in many different settings. He is on the US&R Indiana Task Force 1 as a rescue technician.

 

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