Rob Schnepp: Atmospheric Monitoring: A New Concept to Prevent Fire Smoke Exposure

By Rob Schnepp

The Fire Smoke Coalition is spreading the word across the world about the dangers of fire smoke and, most importantly, the Toxic Twins™ − hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and carbon monoxide (CO).  It does not take a critical examination of scientific data to determine that fire smoke is a toxic soup of dangerous gases and a deadly enemy to firefighters and responders. What is still confusing for responders is how to decide which toxins are important to pay attention to; how to identify them among the other gases and particulates in fire smoke; and, at what point is the air safe to breathe without self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) or other respiratory protection.

Although gas detection is common in the hazardous materials response side of the fire service, the typical line firefighter is unfamiliar with gas detection, manufacturers, gas detection devices, and methods and procedures for detecting toxic gases at every fire scene. It is important to note that there is no industry standard best practice when it comes to detection and monitoring in the fire environment, specifically during overhaul. To that end, agencies are investing in technologies for detecting toxic gases at the fire scene without a clear understanding of the mission, the limitations of the devices, or an understanding of the results. That is slowly changing because of the rising level of awareness of the dangers of fire smoke and the need to identify the presence of toxins at fire scenes. Change is slow primarily because of the strong fire service culture that includes the use, or lack of use, of SCBA; an ingrained belief that breathing smoke is part of the job and unavoidable; and the lack of familiarity with gas detection devices among nonhazardous materials personnel in the fire service.

Detection Devices for All

Up until the past few years, there have been three primary uses for detection devices for a typical fire department outside of the traditional hazmat response team:

–          Rescue response including confined space.

–          Building collapse and trench rescue.

–          CO detector responses.

However, it is known that the extensive commercial and residential use of synthetic materials (plastics, nylons, and polymers such as Styrofoam® and polyurethane foam) have a significant impact on combustion and fire behavior, as well as the smoke produced during a structure fire.  Synthetic substances ignite and burn fast, causing rapidly developing fires and toxic smoke, making structural firefighting more dangerous than ever before.

Understanding the flurry of activity and education regarding fire gas toxicity and firefighter safety, the need for atmospheric monitoring on every scene adds an entirely new category for detection – outside of the hazmat response. Ideally, the ultimate goal is to create a new concept for the fire service: Gas detection is user-friendly for all firefighters on the scene of everyday fires.

Gas Detection Survey Results

In 2012 the Coalition issued a national survey to assess the base level of knowledge regarding the use of gas detection devices at the scene of a fire. Two hundred forty-four firefighters responded.  The demographics of the responders were as follows:

            • 25 percent – Volunteer

            • 34 percent – Combination Career/Volunteer

            • 40 percent – Career

The majority of respondents were line firefighters working in the field. When asked about standard operating procedures for using gas detection devices at fire scenes, 80 percent of the respondents replied they had no standard operating procedures (SOPs) for detecting/ monitoring hydrogen cyanide in the field. Forty-nine percent had no SOPs for detecting/monitoring CO on the fire scene, and 79 percent had no SOPs for detecting/monitoring any toxic gas on the fire scene. The conclusion to be drawn is that an overwhelming majority of the firefighters have no guidance when it comes to detecting and monitoring for toxic gases on the scene of a fire.   

More than 20 percent of the respondents said they had been treated for smoke inhalation; more interesting is that 90 percent stated they had never been treated for smoke inhalation even though they suffered headaches, nausea, and sore throats following a fire. This indicates a lack of understanding of the signs and symptoms of smoke inhalation, which points directly back to detection and monitoring. If firefighters do not have a reference point about the quality of air they are breathing, there is no correlation back to the fact that smoke may be the culprit for feeling ill after a fire or causing long-term health effects.

The majority of firefighters who attend the Coalition’s Know Your Smoke: The Dangers of Fire Smoke Exposure training program go back to their departments with new education and awareness about the need for atmospheric monitoring on every fire scene, but they don’t know where or how to begin the process of developing procedures and practices.  

The purpose of this program is to provide the reader with a comprehensive tool to guide a fire department through the process of selecting gas detection devices, the process of atmospheric monitoring, the physiological processes the body will endure when exposed to fire gases, and the process for implementing departmental atmospheric monitoring protocols.   

There’s no question the fire service has come a long way since World War II.  Hopefully, the information shared in this publication will guide your department through the productive and live-saving steps of atmospheric monitoring on every fire scene.


Rob Schnepp, retired deputy chief, spent more than 25 years in fire service. He is a member of the National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee on Hazardous Materials Response Personnel. He is a member of the task group charged with revising NFPA 473, Standard for Competencies for EMS Personnel Responding to Hazardous Materials. A published author on several fire service topics, his works include Hazardous Materials Awareness and Operations (Jones and Bartlett Publishers) and numerous articles for Fire Engineering magazine. He is a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board and the executive advisory board for the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC).  He is a former hazardous materials team manager for California Task Force 4 and an instructor for the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, providing hazmat/weapons of mass destruction training to an international audience.


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