Continuing to Protect Our Customers AFTER the Fire is Out

By Charlie Boyte

In my last article, I asked for some feedback on the methods used across North America to mitigate hazards to the public following a structure fire. Specifically, I was looking for regulations and the authority responsible to address the health and safety hazards created by fire suppression and residual by-products of combustion before the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) releases a structure for occupation. This follow-up article will attempt to summarize the feedback received, challenges faced, and pending initiatives and propose some ideas that may keep our customers safer in the future.

Clearly, the feedback supported the concepts that there are serious environmental hazards created when modern materials are exposed to fires and heat. Generally, I found that employers in the fire suppression and remediation industry are aware of their responsibility to protect workers from these hazards under federal, provincial, and state acts and regulations. They were also greatly aware that the regulations included severe penalties and clearly state the provisions the employer must supply and implement to protect employees from these workplace hazards. It was clear that the fire service and remediation experts understood that the regulations greatly reduce the risk to workers. However, we continue to see far too many workplace related cancers and respiratory and circulatory illnesses as a result of exposure to the by-products of fires. It was also clear that without the dedicated work of scientists and researchers today and over the past decade, we would not have the clear evidence we have today that links these diseases to workplace exposures. That research, however, is in its infancy, and we are continually learning more about the ever changing by-products of modern fires as new consumer products enter our living and working environments. Following is what we know from that research.

In fire events, pyrolysis and heating of modern materials and furnishings in structures will create a variety of by-products of combustion. These products will include a concoction of chemicals such as carbon monoxide (CO), hydrogen cyanide (HCN), hydrogen chloride, acrolein, and persistent organic pollutants including polychlorinated and polybrominated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans (PBDD/Fs), among many others. These products, and the consequences of exposure to them, are explained in J.C. Wakefield’s paper, “A Toxological Review of the Products of Combustion,” which is published on the Public Health England Web site www.hpa.org. There are also several papers available on the internet for review that identifies the broad range of chemicals produced by burning plastics. At www.researchgate.net, “Combustion Products of Plastics as Indicators for Refuse Burning in the Atmosphere,highlights the broad range of chemical compounds that are produced when plastics are burned. Dr. Susan Shaw and associates recently published a study conducted on firefighters in California which shows clear evidence of elevated levels of halogenated contaminants including PBDD/Fs in firefighters despite the significant protective equipment used to protect firefighters from exposure to the products of combustion. The paper can be viewed at www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0045653513000313. As new products are introduced into our homes and businesses, we can expect this range of toxic by-products to increase.

Smoke from fire events is dispersed throughout the structure except in areas isolated by sealed fire separations or areas where the atmospheric pressure is greater than that of the smoke impinged areas. The levels of contaminants in the smoke will vary with the temperature to which the products are heated; subsequent molecular bonding occurs during the process of combustion or pyrolysis. Smoke containing high levels of hydrocarbons (often created during incomplete combustion) will condense on surfaces with oily deposits and soot. These deposits will contain a variety of carbon- and hydrogen-based chemicals, which may be stable or unstable, depending on the molecular bonds that occur. As products in the building decompose, they may add to the chemical bonds, creating an even broader range of chemicals through natural or heat induced molecular attraction.

One can hypothesize, then, that the fire smoke deposits in and around the structure will contain varying levels of the resultant chemicals, many of which are hazardous to health and safety.

From this evidence, it is clear that there will also be hazards to the inhabitants of these structures after the fire department leaves the scene of the fire. The unanswered question is, Who is responsible to ensure that postfire hazards are mitigated to protect the families, tenants, or workers that will occupy these structures after the fire is out?

Most fire departments have a formal policy and procedure to release the building to the owner or owner’s representative after the fire investigation and prior to leaving the scene. In most cases, the resultant documentation will highlight the fact that there are hazards present. This process is supposed to transfer the responsibility for the cleanup and liability back to the owner (our customer). Given our current knowledge of the consequences of exposure to the products of combustion, I don’t believe we are doing the right thing in that act. Certainly we do not have the expertise to determine if the environment is safe. In fact, if we are doing the right thing ourselves, our firefighters should be in turnout gear and breathing apparatus to prevent exposure and its resultant consequences whenever they are inside that structure.

The act of turning the structure over to the owner generally results in two scenarios: First, when the property is adequately insured. In this case, the insurer will take control of the property on behalf of the owner. This turnover is usually accomplished through an agent or adjuster who may or may not be totally aware of the risks. The insurer will generally secure the property and enlist the services of a remediation or structural contractors to return the structure to its prefire condition. Second, if the property is not insured. In this case, owner will take control of the property. The owner may undertake the work or hire a contractor to do the repairs. Either of these scenarios could open the door to future liability or litigation. More importantly, it is apparent from my research that, in either of these cases, the hazards may be overlooked, underestimated, masked, or covered up. These oversights may be unintentional because of ignorance of the potential hazards or intentional in the interest of cost savings.

The hazards presented will be both visible and invisible. The visible hazards may include structural damage, debris, soot deposits, and water damage. These hazards appear relatively easy to mitigate by removal, replacement or cleaning. However, mitigating actions must consider the consequences of fire suppression and residual products of combustion that are not be visible to be truly effective.

The invisible hazards are not easy to measure, quantify, or mitigate and may remain in the structure for extended periods of time regardless of the fire event’s magnitude. These hazards include a concoction of chemicals including CO, HCN, Hydrogen Chloride, and Acrolein and persistent organic pollutants including PBDD/Fs among others. All of these elements will be attracted to the carbon deposited by fire smoke in and around the structure and can be characterised in the simple phrase of “bad stuff”. This bad stuff can make people really sick, shorten lives from cancers, and even cause death, depending on the levels of exposure.

Water used in fire suppression may create latent hazards including molds, mildews, and building degradation. I could not find any studies on the long-term effects of modern surfactants (foams). However, it is safe to assume that these products will either result in or heighten the likelihood of latent consequences when used in conjunction with water to increase penetration and effectiveness in fire control.

Clearly, fires must be extinguished to save lives and property. But, in today’s world, the visible and latent by-products of fires must also be considered to protect public safety. The challenges in accomplishing this goal are numerous. The variety of hazards produced by the fire event will depend on the type and quantity of materials exposed to fire or heat, temperatures, and fire suppression methods. Testing equipment for the complex chemical compounds that may be produced is costly and not readily available in all areas. Fire damage remediation completed by property owners is largely uncontrolled; there is no established criterion to quantify the risk and determine the remediation required. Consequences of water damage and surfactants may be latent. The methods used by specialists in fire damage remediation are not consistent, and the industry is self-regulated.

Certainly, these are significant hurdles. However, the greatest challenge in addressing this issue may come from the insurance industry. Enhanced regulation, monitoring, and testing in fire damage remediation will certainly result in added cost to the insurer. The consequences of not addressing these environmental risks are much greater. There were more than 500,000 structure fires reported in North America in 2011. That is 500,000 opportunities each year to put the public at risk to that bad stuff left behind when the fire department leaves the scene of a fire.

None of these challenges, however, are insurmountable. Certainly, the public has a heightened awareness of the consequences of environmental impacts on its health these days. This awareness can serve as an impetus to support enhanced provisions to protect their safety.

Patti Harman, Director of Standards and Communications for the Restoration Industry Association (RIA), which represents a membership of more than 1,100 restoration companies worldwide, said, “The RIA is currently in the process of writing industry standards for determining whether or not structures and their contents have been impacted by fires. These will be component standards that address the cleaning and restoration of structures and contents. The standards will include a separate commonalities document that will include detailed safety information for workers. The standards will be developed over the next two years and the Association anticipates that these standards will be recognized by the American National Standards Institute. That committee is in the formation stages and hopes to be up and running in a month. The Association is looking for people that are interested in sitting on the committee.”

This is a good start, but I think we have a lot of work to do. Fires impact at least half a million structures each year in North America, and those are only the ones that are reported. Each year, hundreds of thousands of occupants will be exposed to the environments in those structures. Those occupants could be our friends, families, and even our grandkids. We need to get off our duffs on this one, folks.

The bottom line is there are no standards or qualifications established to protect our clients from the by-products of fires. There is no regulation or oversight on the work done in fire damage remediation. There is no requirement to disclose fire damage once it is repaired. These gaps in regulation leave families, tenants, and workers at risk of exposure to bad stuff, now and in the future.

We need to ensure that the person to whom we release fire damaged structures has the right training, experience, and certification to safely manage that structure. We need to ensure that the AHJ responsible for fire damaged structures is defined, and that the AHJ knows the consequences of fire. We need to establish a new process to release that building when the remediation is complete that ensures our customers remain safe. We need better scientific evidence to tell us when it is safe to allow reoccupation when fires—large or small—occur in structures.

Those needs can be met. The science runs parallel with the studies and work underway to define workplace exposures. We have the National Fire Protection Association to build consensus-based standards to guide the restoration industry, the AHJ, and coordinating professionals. Given our knowledge of the ever-changing by-products of combustion and the impacts these products can present to health and safety, I would say it is time to get on with this work.

Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of AutisticPsycho.

 

Charlie Boyte is a 26-year fire service veteran, spending 12 of those years as chief for Pender Island Fire Rescue (PIRF), British Columbia, Canada. PIFR encompasses three stations with nine pieces of apparatus including three type 1 engines, three speciality/rescue vehicles, one  tender, one utility pickup, and one 1972 engine used for fire prevention. Boyte has a Level 3 fire investigation certificate from the Canadian Fire Investigation School. He received his CFO Professional Designation from the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs in 2010.

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