Rob Schnepp: Know Your Smoke: The Dangers of 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 important, 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 the air is safe to breathe without self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) or other respiratory protection.

While gas detection is common in the hazardous material 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 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 to occur primarily because of the strong fire service culture, which 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 non-hazardous materials personnel in the fire service.

Up until the past few years, there have been three primary uses for detection devices for a typical fire department outside of the traditional haz mat 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; 244 firefighters responded. The demographics of those responding were as follows:

25% – Volunteer

34% – Combination Career/Volunteer

40% – 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% of the respondents replied they had no standard operating procedures for detecting/monitoring hydrogen cyanide in the field; 49% had no similar operating procedures for detecting/monitoring CO on the fire scene; and 79% had no standard operating procedures for detecting/monitoring any toxic gas on the fire scene. The conclusion to be drawn is an overwhelming majority of the firefighters have no guidance when it comes to performing the task of detecting and monitoring for toxic gases on the scene of a fire.

More than 20% of the respondents replied they have been treated for smoke inhalation but more interesting is that 90% stated they have never been treated for smoke inhalation but 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 for 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 don’t know where or how to begin the process of developing procedures and practices.  The program and the Coalition’s training resources will give you and your department the resources you need to begin life-saving procedures on every fireground.


ROB SCHNEPP is a 26-year veteran of the fire service serving as the division chief of special operations for the Alameda County (CA) Fire Department. He is the author of the textbook Hazardous Materials: Awareness and Operations (Jones and Bartlett Publishers) and is on the editorial advisory board for Fire Engineering.

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