May Roundtable: SCBA Enforcement for Toxic Atmosphere

This month’s Roundtable question was: 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? Read Skip Coleman’s initial reply HERE.

Thomas Dunne, deputy chief, New York City Fire Department
Response: Our department enforces a basic policy requiring SCBA use in any toxic atmosphere. Overhauling presents a problem, since it is seldom obvious when a “safe” level is reached and the SCBA can be removed.
Excessive carbon monoxide (CO) levels are the norm during overhaul, and we carry CO detectors to monitor those levels. However, CO is only one of numerous hazards present during overhaul. Some plastic materials don’t have to actually burn to release toxins. Just a rise in temperature may suffice. Likewise, dangerous particulate matter, such as asbestos, may be released without any obvious warning signs. The CO meter reveals only a small part of the overall situation.
The collapse of the World Trade Center provided the ultimate example of health damage incurred by atmospheric contamination. The overhauling phase of every fire presents a smaller version of the same danger.
The FDNY is a large department with many resources. Because of this, we expect our chiefs to call for fresh units when they anticipate a need for extended overhauling. Atmospheric monitoring and evaluation of structural stability are essential, but providing relief personnel with full SCBA cylinders are vital keys to safety during the overhauling stage.  
Joel Holbrook, captain, Washington Township, Centerville, Ohio
Response: Our department does not have a “policy” for fireground air monitoring; however, it is understood that an air-quality reading must be obtained prior to any member’s doffing his SCBA and entering the once immediately dangerous to life and health environment. All of our fire apparatus carry a four-gas meter, which is calibrated on a regular schedule.  The CO sensors are set to alarm at 35 parts per million (ppm), which is well below the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) eight-hour allowance. Our goal on the fireground is to have the CO readings at 10ppm or less and active ventilation in place before anyone enters without an SCBA. This is a collaborative decision among the incident commander and fireground officers based on post-fire conditions, air-quality readings, and structural integrity. 

John Butler, training officer, Mississauga (Ont., Can.) Fire + Emergency Services
Response:  We are in the process of implementing a post-fire air-quality testing program. As always, budget restraints will limit the extent of how involved or precise the testing for toxins will be. One argument we’ve had from senior staff is, “If all the studies show that post-fire gases are dangerous to our health, why do we need to test for it? Why not assume that the air is bad and mask up all the time while in the structure, even during overhaul and fire cause investigation?” Although I am a big proponent of post-fire gas testing, I have to agree with our senior staff’s argument. As an alternative, I have also suggested a 100 percent mask-up safety initiative similar to the one in Toledo, Ohio. Sometimes firefighters need a number value or a test meter reading before they will decide on whether to stay masked up or not. Education and enforcement are the keys.

Michael Williams, training officer, Alameda City (CA) Fire Department
Response: For several years now, my department has had a policy on atmospheric monitoring during overhaul. We monitor for CO, lower explosive levels, hydrogen sulfide, and oxygen levels. For years this seemed adequate. However, with the current research in fire fatalities, we have determined the need to also monitor hydrogen cyanide. CO and hydrogen cyanide are by-products in a typical structure fire, and they work together as toxins to deprive the body of oxygen at the cellular level. Exposure to these toxins has acute and chronic effects on the body. Our monitors are set to alarm if the levels go above the permissible exposure limit. When the monitor alarms, crews are to exit the area, advise the incident commander, and don appropriate respiratory protection prior to reentering. 
We are also in the process of acquiring blood CO level monitors. This will allow us to determine in medical rehab if a firefighter has had a significant exposure to CO. Blood CO monitoring coupled with atmospheric monitoring will help firefighters to protect themselves against acute and chronic side effects of exposures to these toxins.
Even with this policy in place, we remind our suppression staff that we monitor for only a handful of toxins and that normal readings on the monitor do not mean that the atmosphere is safe. We always recommend that proper respiratory protection be donned during the extent of the overhaul regardless of what the monitor reads.
Tom Riemar, assistant chief, Anderson Township Fire and Rescue, Cincinnati, Ohio
Response: Yes, we do require the use of a four-gas monitor to ensure the atmosphere is safe during overhaul before removing SCBA. In addition, we have filter adapters and cartridges for use with the air pack mask when the atmosphere is clear on the monitor; the airborne particulates still present a hazard. Studies have shown that microparticles present a significant hazard and contribute to long-term disease development. A little discomfort now may help us retire with our lungs intact.
Tony Facchiano, lieutenant, Bethlehem (PA) Fire Department   

Response: We monitor for oxygen, carbon monoxide, lower exposure level, hydrogen sulfide (normal set-up on our quad-gas meters) as well as hydrogen cyanide. In addition, we ventilate with an electric positive-pressure ventilation fan during investigation. Not until all readings are within acceptable limits are personnel inside the building allowed to doff their SCBA. Monitoring is continued as long as personnel are still working in the structure. No structure is released with any abnormal readings noted.

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