Commentary by P.J. Norwood
Photo above courtesy of KME
There will always be spirited debates on social media surrounding topics that impact firefighters, from the firehouse to the fireground. Without these good-spirited debates, we cannot truly see all sides of the issue. These debates also give us the chance to see how some issues impact specific regions different than the one we know so well.
One of these current debates is over the clean cab concept. There are many good points and items we should be considering. Don’t we all want to work for agencies that are always looking for innovative ways to decrease our occupational exposure? Don’t we want our agencies to take preventative steps so we can live long prosperous lives after we retire? After all, it’s for our protection and longevity. For me, retirement is not the end game. Living long after retirement is.
The clean cab concept is one piece of the puzzle when it comes to cancer reduction in the fire service, though it’s not a complete solution. We need to continue forward momentum in the advancement of our profession. We must make sure such cancer-mitigating efforts do not have a negative impact on our ability to do the job we are entrusted to by the citizens of our community. We must balance decreasing our exposure to unnecessary risks with operational readiness. Operational readiness should not be minimized to reduce our risk of exposure to carcinogens.
There are many components to the clean cab concept that we can and should be supporting. There are also pieces that we may not want to support based on your response model. Let’s look at some of the items of the clean cab concept that make sense.
1. Interior cabs that are made of materials that we can clean and decontaminate. This makes sense and does not impact our ability to serve.
2. Decontamination, meaning putting all members through a decon process. This makes sense. Using wipes, wet decontamination, and changing any wet and contaminated clothes before getting back in the cab is achievable. It may impact department readiness depending on size and resources of your agency. Would it be too difficult to remove your station uniform, use wipes, and put on a new uniform? Always convenient? No, not all. Achievable? Yes.
3. Remove turnout gear from the cab. After a fire, we should complete a gross decon of all equipment. Put all equipment through a gross decon process, remove and bag personal protective equipment, and place it in an exterior compartment. This does create some logistical challenges. It also requires departments have a second set of turnout gear for each member, or, at the minimum, a supply of PPE for all members to use while their personal set is being laundered. Shouldn’t we be fighting for two set of gear already?
4. Remove self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) from the cab. Here is one point that stirs up some hostility. Should we remove all SCBA from the cab? No! Should we not allow dirty SCBA in the cab? Yes! Again, there are some logistic challenges, but they too can be overcome. We can perform on-scene decon of the equipment and then place it back into the cab. In areas where the environment doesn’t allow for this (sub-freezing temperatures), we may need to bag the SCBA, return them to a designated area at the fire station, and clean them before putting them back into the cab.
5. Redesign new and retrofit older apparatus (where possible). We should be looking to use in-cab air conditioners with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. We should also look to redesign and retrofit (where possible) interiors with surfaces that can be easily cleaned and materials that do not absorb products of combustion.
There are many other pieces of the puzzle to reduce our cancer risk. Items like using diesel exhaust systems, enforcing SCBA use, having and enforcing “no tobacco” policies, and yearly medical screening. I am not referring to the simple check-a-box screening exams. I mean about thorough medical screening including blood work, cancer screening, chest X-rays, mammograms, etc.
Although the clean cab concept is being implemented in some departments, we must hope that it is not diminishing those firefighters’ operational readiness. Departments should not be taking extremes like removing SCBAs from the cab if they are not already offering members thorough yearly medical screening as well as the many scientifically and research-backed items that impact cancer risk.
We cannot attack this issue from one side. We must look at commonsense practices that reduce our risk and provide a safer, cleaner environment to work. It does not mean sterilizing our profession to the point where the primary mission of saving a life in our community is put on hold while we prepare to make entry.
We have a sworn mission to protect life and property. That “life” also includes the lives of firefighters. We need to look at ways to reduce our risk and decrease our exposure to carcinogens, however we also have a job to do in which the difference in seconds can be the difference between life and death.
P.J. NORWOOD is a deputy chief training officer for the East Haven (CT) Fire Department. He is an FDIC International classroom, workshop, and H.O.T. instructor; a Fire Engineering Advisory Board member, and a Fire Engineering book and video author. He served on the UL Technical Panel for Residential Attic Fire Mitigation Tactics and Exterior Fire Spread.