Respiratory protection is an essential component of a firefighter’s personal protective equipment. Firefighters and fire officers are required to wear positive-pressure self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) to protect themselves from CO and other toxins found in smoke, such as, hydrogen cyanide, formaldehyde, acrolein, hydrogen chloride, toluene, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, isocyanates, and so on. Respiratory protection should be considered mandatory for all firefighters and fire officers operating in hazardous environments. It should be a fundamental rule in firefighting that no one is permitted to enter a potentially dangerous atmosphere (toxic, oxygen deficient, elevated temperature, dangerous goods event, etc.) without protective breathing apparatus.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a byproduct of incomplete combustion and is present at essentially all fire scenes, and is a well recognized risk at all structure fires. This toxic fire gas is responsible for more fire deaths than any other product of combustion. A recent study from Yale University (2004)1 tested several interior firefighting scenes where firefighters were working to assess the degree of possible CO exposure. Results indicated that the ambient CO readings for the fire attack evolutions ranged from 75 to 1,290 ppm (Immediately Dangerous To Health or Life (IDHL) is 1200 ppm). The need for respiratory protection was evident.
It is not uncommon for firefighters to remove their SCBAs during the overhaul evolution. This can be a dangerous practice. The Yale University study recorded ambient CO levels during overhaul procedures ranging from 0 to 130 ppm (Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) is 50 ppm). A previous study conducted by the American Industrial Hygiene Association (2000)2 demonstrated that CO levels exceeded the NIOSH Short Term Exposure Limit (STEL) of 200 ppm during overhaul at five of 25 fires studied. It is therefore possible that firefighters are being subjected to clinically significant levels of CO during fire overhaul evolutions. This occupational health concern can easily be avoided through the proper application and use of SCBA. A fireground commander cannot tolerate any unsafe condition; this includes personnel safety during the overhaul of the fire scene.
Failure to wear the appropriate safety gear can be attributed to the following factors: needs, attitude, or ability. Need includes such items as the availability of the SCBA. Insisting that the SCBA be worn can only work if the needed equipment is available. Ability includes proper training and the necessary knowledge and skills associated with the use of the safety equipment. Any shortfalls in this area must be addressed through an appropriate training program. Finally, attitude includes personal preferences and beliefs. Some firefighters may still cling to the dated “smoke-eater” mentality. Scientific research clearly demonstrates that today’s fires generate smoke laden with toxins and carcinogens. Personal preferences on when to use a SCBA are best addressed through well written department SOPs.
Research suggests that morbidity and morality from CO poisoning is preventable. When in doubt, respiratory protection should be utilized by all fireground personnel, including the fire officer. Leadership often means leading by example, so gear up.
1 Cone, D. et al. (2004). Noninvasive Fireground Assessment of Carboyhemoglobin Levels in Firefighters. Prehospital Emergency Care J. 2005; 9(1), 8-13.
2 Bolstad-Johnson DM (2000). Characterization of firefighter exposures during fire overhaul. AIHA J. 2000;61:636-41.
Barry Bouwsema is a company officer for Strathcona County Emergency Services, Sherwood Park, Alberta. He has been in the fire service for 20 years, and is a graduate of Athabasca University with a bachelor’s degree in General Studies. Bouswema lectures paramedic students at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and teaches firefighters (NFPA 1001) at the Emergency Services Academy.