SCBA Use During Overhaul

QUESTION: SCBA policies define the required use of SCBAs at fires. During the overhaul phase, when, if at all, are your firefighters allowed to remove their SCBA protection?

WHEN I STARTED THIS JOB in 1975, the life expectancy for a firefighter was 10 years below that of the average male in the United States. At the time, I believed that was the result of the beating the body takes at working fires (and probably more so the smaller “still-box” alarms such as car fires).

In 1988, we instituted a mandatory mask policy that stated a firefighter will wear an SCBA in service whenever smoke is or could become present. However, at all fires, when the smoke cleared (somewhat) and overhaul began, the SCBAs were dropped, and we went to work for a period 10 times longer than it took to knock down the fire.

Recently, we have learned of the dangers of the products of combustion that are not commonplace and everyday words to firefighters. HCN and free radicals come to mind. Some of the “stuff” found in smoke and the by-products of combustion are not detectable with “ordinary” handheld metering devices. We are learning that some of these products of combustion are also very toxic and in some cases carcinogenic. Yet, we ignore the obvious (or not so obvious, as in the case of unseen toxins lingering in postfire atmospheres for hours) and dump our only protection as we clean up and pick up the fire area.

Toledo has instituted what the troops affectionately call the “All Mask All the Time” policy to best protect our firefighters. The new policy stipulates that you have the SCBA in service any time you are in a building or an atmosphere where smoke is or could be present, including all overhaul and pickup operations as well as returning to the building later to check for rekindles. Does this hamper our operations? Yes. We go through many more bottles at a fire, and members are still tired the next day after a fire. Will it make a difference in the life expectancy of our firefighters 10 and 20 years down the road? Only time will tell.

-John “Skip” Coleman, assistant chief, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), a technical editor of Fire Engineering, and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.

Ron Hiraki, assistant chief,
Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One

Response: Our firefighters are allowed to remove their SCBA during the overhaul phase after the air has been checked with an air monitor and no evidence of other chemicals or particulates not detectable by the air monitors has been found. When the conditions are deemed safe, the incident commander (IC) may approve entering and working in the structure without SCBA.

Air monitoring and a risk analysis may indicate that the use of SCBA is not necessary during overhaul. However, our members are trained to be aware that “ordinary” particulates such as dust, dirt, and sawdust can pose some health problems. Consider an exterior fire involving a deck made of pressure-treated lumber or recycled plastic. It probably is not good to overhaul the deck material with a chain saw and breathe in the dust. A good particle mask is an inexpensive option for such a situation. However, a particle mask does not protect firefighters from gases, fumes, or micro-fine particulates such as asbestos. Therefore, the precautionary use of SCBA may be the course of action.

Christopher J. Weir, division chief,
Port Orange (FL) Department of Fire & Rescue

Response: It depends on the type of material burning or that has burned and has been extinguished. If it is PVC or any classification of plastic combined with carcinogenic ring hydrocarbons, the SCBAs stay on for the duration of overhaul and also the fire investigation precursory examinations. Because we do not see and cannot detect toxins does not mean we have a safe environment. I know our department performs sample air-quality testing with a gas monitor to verify oxygen levels within a building once the fire has been extinguished and the building has been ventilated. However, we evaluate what has burned before we consider removing SCBAs.

We are very strict concerning our staff’s wearing their SCBAs when working in hazardous atmospheres even when it may be deemed safe to remove them once oxygen levels reach 20.8 percent and above. Prior to such considerations, we take into account the type of material that has burned to make a final determination as to when these vital life-saving pieces are discontinued. This is especially true during the origin-and-cause-investigation portion of the postoverhaul, where undetected or impervious hazardous fumes from burned or heated PVC, hazardous solids and liquids, pesticides, and other forms of life-threatening hazardous materials are broken down in their worst form from fire or heat.

Gary Seidel, chief,
Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department

Response: Our firefighters use SCBA always in an atmosphere assumed to be immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH). IDLH will be assumed in a fire environment, in confined spaces, in potential or actual hazardous-materials releases, and during overhaul operations. Once atmospheric monitoring can determine that the concentrations of toxic material or percentages of oxygen in the air are at safe levels, the IC will consider reducing the level of respiratory protection.

The IC has the authority to determine the level of respiratory protection for overhaul operations, whether it is an SCBA, a powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR), an air-purifying respirator (APR), or a cartridge filtered mask (N-95). Because the products of combustion and dust will continually be stirred up, an N-95 will always be the least respiratory protection used by our firefighters during overhaul. In all cases, the IC will continually monitor the atmosphere as long as we are on-scene to determine our levels of personal protective equipment (PPE) and respiratory protection.

Jeffrey Schwering, lieutenant,
Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services

Response: Our guidelines have the IC making the call concerning when our members can remove their masks during overhaul. The IC uses all resources at his disposal to ensure a safe fireground. Air monitoring is one of the tools most commonly used. The air is monitored for carbon monoxide (CO), to protect our members.

Company officers are responsible for their firefighters at all times; ensuring mask compliance is a major part of that responsibility. Company officers are the eyes of the IC at a working incident. Communication between our officers and chiefs is very important to ensure the safety of our firefighters in an IDLH atmosphere.

Although many of us still automatically take off our mask as soon as possible, our habits are slowly changing. Based on the use of new studies that have come out recently, our training on toxic gases has improved. It is our hope that with the use of the technology that has been approved in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1861, Standard on Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) for Emergency Services, 2007 edition, with voice amplifiers on the face pieces, increased company officer training, and positive communication on the fireground, we will be able to reduce the need to remove our masks prematurely.

Thomas Dunne, deputy chief,
Fire Department of New York

Response: Our department enforces a basic policy that requires the use of SCBA in any toxic atmosphere. The IC determines when mask use may be discontinued. Overhauling presents a problem, since it is seldom obvious when we have reached a “safe” level that warrants SCBA removal.

Excessive CO levels are the norm during overhaul, since the reduced heat affects gas buoyancy and ventilation. This is particularly true for smoldering fires and fires that have been extinguished by sprinkler systems.

Our personnel have CO detectors to monitor these levels, but the IC has to consider that CO is only one of numerous hazards present during overhaul. Some plastic materials don’t have to 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 World Trade Center collapse provided the ultimate example of health damage incurred by atmospheric contamination. However, the overhauling stage of every fire presents a smaller version of the same danger.

We expect our chiefs to call for fresh units when they anticipate a need for extended overhauling. Generally, it is only after the fire is completely extinguished and vented and the building is entirely opened up that an IC would even consider allowing his personnel to remove their SCBA. If there is any doubt at all about the safety of the environment, he owes it to his people to preserve their health by enforcing the mask policy.

Mike Bucy, assistant chief,
Portage (IN) Fire Department

Response: Our policy is pretty simple when it comes to postfire operations: We use our gas detectors to give an “All clear” within a structure. Members may still use their SCBA at this point, but most trust the metering we use on a daily basis.

Eric Dreiman, lieutenant,
Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department

Response: The doffing of SCBAs by personnel operating on a fireground in Indianapolis is managed by the on-scene safety officer. The standard used is a CO level that does not exceed 35 parts per million (ppm). At levels higher than 35 ppm, or at the discretion of the safety officer or IC, personnel are required to keep on their SCBAs for their protection. Once the safety officer or IC gives the “All clear,” an alert tone is set off on the fireground, and personnel are notified that they may remove their SCBAs.

Billy Wenzel, captain/safety officer,
Wichita (KS) Fire Department

Response: A CO level below 35 ppm is the guideline for members’ removing their SCBA. We use a four-gas meter, carried on every pumper, for fireground monitoring. All members have been trained in the basic operation of the meter. Generally, the incident safety officer is responsible for checking CO conditions after the fire has been extinguished. Company officers are charged with their crew’s safety, including continual monitoring during the overhaul phase. After extinguishment, our members are inclined to remove their SCBAs, so that is where we concentrate our CO-monitoring effort. Initially, some firefighters prematurely removed their SCBAs. The IC at the scene addresses noncompliance. In addition, we provide meters to our arson investigators for continual monitoring during the investigative phase of the fire.

Monitoring has also helped us to ensure the adequate ventilation of structures. Our gas-powered fans sometimes introduce high levels of CO; the monitoring enables us to reduce the CO hazard associated with the use of exhaust extensions and electric fans.

Change is always initially difficult. After we trained our members, acceptance increased. Many of our members had their eyes opened by the revelation that CO has an accumulative risk factor and by the findings that additional poisonous gases are present in smoke. Also, during the training, many members recalled fires at which they suffered from CO exposure without realizing it. We have been monitoring fire for three years; it is now common for our interior crews to request CO monitoring on extinguishment.

Clint Fey, captain/health and safety officer,
West Metro (CO) Fire Rescue

Response: The IC, after consultation with the on-scene incident safety officer and consideration of several factors, ultimately makes the decision to remove SCBAs. Our department recognizes the multitude of seen and unseen hazards present during fire operations and takes a cautious approach to terminating the use of SCBA. CO, HCN, asbestos, benzene, sulfur dioxide, and aldehydes are just a few of the dangerous products of combustion that could be present during overhaul.

In cases where SCBA use is terminated, our policy states that the entire work area must be at a measured CO level below 35 ppm and that no visible airborne particulates be present. During rehabilitation, firefighters’ vital signs are monitored and arterial oxygen saturation (SaO2) and carboxyhemoglobin saturation (SpCO) are assessed.

Using SCBA throughout overhaul is a cultural change for many organizations. Because there is no specific device that can monitor all the potential carcinogens, poisonous gases, and dangerous particulates present during fire operations, we strive to use our SCBAs whenever practical.

Mark Walsh, firefighter,
Cranston (RI) Fire Department

Response: The night before St. Patrick’s Day, 2006, we responded to a late-night fire in an apartment complex. The fire quickly went to multiple alarms, and crews performed many rescues and tremendous amounts of work. Most crews went through four bottles prior to rehab. Two firefighters were hospitalized for shortness of breath and chest pain; both later tested positive for HCN poisoning. A week later, the City of Providence responded to three fires in a 24-hour period and had multiple firefighters suffering symptoms of cyanide poisoning.

These incidences, coupled with the resulting study conducted by the Providence Fire Department and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), prompted us to alter our SCBA and rehabilitation policy, primarily during overhaul operations. Prior to these fires, SCBAs during overhaul were optional and basically were used until the smoke cleared. After a reevaluation, we had one multigas monitor outfitted with an HCN sensor. The on-scene safety officer is responsible for this meter and monitoring air quality in the fire building. He or a designee monitors air quality in the fire building, and all members working in that building are to remain “on air” until air quality returns to healthy/normal levels.

Once air quality reaches safe levels, crews may remove their SCBAs. Many have embraced the policy; some have not. The safety officer is kept busy monitoring and enforcing the mask policy. We have not seen any smoke inhalation problems during overhaul since the policy has been implemented.

Bill Brooks, captain,
East Wallingford (CT)
Volunteer Fire Department

Response: Our combination department is National Incident Management System (NIMS) compliant at all responses. SCBA is required for all activities involving IDLH atmospheres. During the overhaul phase of a fire, all firefighting personnel are required to continue the use of SCBA until Command has had the areas metered and has cleared personnel to remove their SCBA. We’ve had incidents of “smoke inhalation” because of removal of SCBA during overhaul in the past but not since this policy was put into effect.

Matt Weil, captain, North Oakland County (MI) Fire Authority

Response: The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA)-and common sense-mandates that we wear an SCBA in an IDLH atmosphere. Most folks relate this to fighting fire, not overhaul. It boils down to a few things and is mostly a decision of the officers based on what is going on. Routinely, the end result is that we drop the SCBA if there is no smoke. That being said, even if there is no smoke, there is still bad stuff in the air. We have discussed, although not implemented, the use of a four-gas meter to determine if the air is safe. Overhaul may not be an acute killer, but it can be a chronic killer. Look at all the firefighter deaths related to cancer that has no specific origin. This topic should be taken more seriously.

George H. Potter, fire protection specialist, Madrid, Spain

Response: As a fire service instructor in Spain for the past 30 years, I have had contact with many municipal and regional departments all over the country and have been involved in basic recruit and refresher training for a number of them.

The “general” policy for Spanish firefighters is to put their SCBA on during response (all inside cab and seated) and mask on when entering the fire building. They generally demask after extinguishment, and many take off the SCBA (for mobility) during overhaul. Several cases of firefighter intoxication, including two deaths, have occurred during the past two decades because of the improper or inadequate use of breathing apparatus. In these cases, both firefighters were using inappropriate filter-type masks in atmospheres distinct from those indicated for the masks.

No established national level policy exists, although some major services have internal standard operating procedures on the use of SCBA.

I am conducting research for an extensive study on the effects of toxic gas on victims and firefighters, principally HCN, based on The Station fire in Rhode Island and hope that the Spanish firefighters take heed, as I trust the U.S. firefighters will.

Jack M. Smith Jr., chief, North Slope Borough (AK) Fire Department

Response: SCBA should be worn during overhaul until it can be confirmed with air monitoring equipment that the environment is safe. Even then, use extreme caution as conditions change. Our department frequently uses the overhaul period to team newer members with experienced personnel to give them additional SCBA operating time. In a largely volunteer system, this enables responders to work in a more controlled environment and to gain additional experience in operating with SCBA. The practice has been used for nearly 35 years and represents a transitional process from training to limited-risk fireground activities before exposing individuals to higher-risk operations like interior attack.

Gerard Finlay, acting captain,
Vaughan (Ont., Canada) Fire Rescue Services

Response: At fires during the overhaul phase, we use SCBAs. However, as the overhaul phase progresses closer to Loss Stopped, we downgrade to N95 masks, which we originally adopted for medical calls during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Southern Ontario. These masks are NIOSH approved for particulates under 42 CFR 84 as an N95 Particulate Filter (95 percent efficiency level) effective against particulate aerosols free of oil; time use restrictions may apply. They are not used in atmospheres with less than 19.5 percent oxygen.

Kris Nissila, firefighter,
Union Grove (WI) Fire Department

Response: Our department requires that we don full PPE, including SCBA protection, during the entire overhaul phase, whether it is during the precontrol overhaul or after extinguishment while looking for fire spread. By requiring this throughout the entire incident, you limit the exposure to CO and other by-products of combustion. Also, full SCBA protection will keep debris from falling into the face and eyes of the crews performing overhaul.

Kai W. Rieger, captain,
Jackson Township (OH) Fire Department

Response: The fire service has come a long way from the time we first started using SCBAs. In the 1980s, we were told we could take off our SCBAs as soon as the fire was out. Today, we know much more about the contents of smoke. Even if the visibility improves, the air still contains numerous dangerous chemicals.

We wait for the visible smoke to dramatically decrease before we even consider doffing SCBA. We rely heavily on atmospheric monitors to inform us of the levels of toxins we cannot see. We remain on SCBA until the CO level is at least below 35 ppm, the oxygen level is approximately 20 to 21 percent, and the lower explosive limit (LEL) is near zero. This usually requires the change from gasoline-powered fans to electric fans. In our final stages of ventilation, we routinely change to electric fans for overhaul. This allows fireground personnel to safely doff SCBA and reduces further firefighter fatigue.

Lee Finlayson, lieutenant,
Grand Rapids (MI) Fire Department

Response: Air monitoring should be in place. If CO is 35 ppm, you should be on air. But with the levels of cyanide found in structures, we should be on air.

Paul J. Urbano, captain,
Anchorage (AK) Fire Department

Response: Our department has adopted <35 ppm of CO as the benchmark for removing our SCBA mask during overhaul. Unfortunately, CO is only one of many highly toxic products of combustion found during overhaul.

Even when the CO monitor reads <35 ppm, I find myself wearing my mask more during overhaul than in the past. We’d be amazed at the long list of chemicals we inhale and absorb during overhaul. Removing our masks seems to make life easier during overhaul, but the consequences of breathing those chemicals are not good.

We should be wearing our masks in three basics situations at fires: IDLH atmospheres (being in the smoke), highly potential IDLH atmospheres (a ceiling, a door, or a wall away from being in the smoke), and overhaul.

Wearing a mask during overhaul may be viewed as a detriment because we use more SCBA cylinders, worn-out firefighters can be more prone to injury, and it can slow the overhaul process. Maybe we should rotate companies or find other solutions to make this health and safety improvement less of a hindrance.

It’s a pain to wear your mask after a good job, but the alternative can be much worse than wearing an SCBA mask during overhaul-wearing an O2 mask during retirement.

Phillip Jose, Casey Phillips, and Mike Gagliano, captains; Steve Bernocco, lieutenant; Seattle (WA) Fire Department

Response: Our policy requires firefighters to wear SCBA during all phases of firefighting, including overhaul. This policy protects firefighters from the cancer-causing products of combustion present in the postfire environment. Burned material continues to release carcinogenic gases for up to 24 hours after the fire. These gases include benzene, CO, PAHs, and HCN. This is not a complete list by any measure, and readers looking for more information should consult “The Breath from Hell” (Fire Engineering, March 2006).

There is no excuse for a fire department, chief officer, or company officer to permit firefighters in their charge to breathe toxic chemicals. There is a duty to ensure that we are protecting the firefighters from this type of exposure. There is a duty to ensure that our firefighters have a long and distinguished career. There is a duty to ensure they will not die shortly after retirement because we let them be exposed.

Research has demonstrated that toxic chemicals exist in the postfire environment. Even our own line-of-duty-death procedures recognize fatalities within 24 hours of smoke exposure as duty related. How can it be possible that we would knowingly allow firefighters to breathe smoke that has the potential to kill them for up to 24 hours after the exposure? Even minor exposures to chemicals such as HCN and the attendant cyanide poisoning clearly demonstrate that the only acceptable policy is that firefighters should not breathe smoke (see “Cyanide Poisoning: How Much of a Threat?” Fire Engineering, September 2006).

It really is simple. Smoke contains deadly toxins. Don’t breathe smoke. Don’t let the crews you are responsible for breathe smoke.

John W. Shiflett, captain,
Prince William County (VA) Department of Fire & Rescue

Response: Our department uses CO as the deciding factor as to when SCBA can be removed during overhaul. When the CO level reaches 35 ppm or lower, the SCBA can be removed. During the final stages of extinguishment, crews start monitoring all areas of the structure and report those findings to the IC. When the allowable limit is met, the IC makes an announcement that SCBA can be dropped.

James Mason, lieutenant,
Chicago (IL) Fire Department

Response: The use of SCBAs is required during all fire operations until the IC has determined that they are no longer needed. This includes the suppression of auto fires, which probably expose responders to more plastic than the average house fire. The IC, regardless of rank, has the duty to use every means necessary to determine if the atmosphere is clear of toxins. This usually includes ensuring that the building has been completely ventilated. Meters for areas like basements and attics are also sometimes used for the protection of the members. After it has been determined that it is safe, the IC will allow firefighters to remove the SCBAs.

Just because the heat of the fire has been vented doesn’t mean that the dangers of the incident are over. Inhaling CO and other toxic gases during the overhaul stage of a structure fire contributes to a higher core body temperature in firefighters. For this reason, it is critical to use SCBA during this phase of the operation, particularly in the warmer weather.

Mike Mason, lieutenant,
Downers Grove (IL) Fire Department

Response: The definition of policies regarding breathing air and overhaul as well as some other hazardous situations involving structural firefighting within our department is still in its infancy.

Many times, personnel don’t relate to the level of dangers present during overhaul in comparison with the firefight. SCBA usage during overhaul is a prominent concern as it relates to overall safety on the fireground, health issues in the immediate environment, and health-related problems down the road.

Our department will be developing more stringent policies applicable to wearing SCBA during overhaul. One simple rule of thumb firefighters can follow when overhauling is to keep your mask on if light smoke is irritating you after extinguishment and there is no adequate ventilation within the structure. Even the slightest irritation to your respiratory system is a sign that things aren’t right and that an IDLH environment is possibly present. Even when very little or no smoke is present, gases, without your being aware, can be affecting your respiratory system and consciousness.

Firefighters sometimes remove their SCBA in less than favorable conditions because of “image”-the old school of smoke eating and toughing it out while the fluids run from your cerebral orifices. That’s not cool anymore! Cyanide is present long after the fire is out, and these underlying carcinogens will kill us after we retire. Another reason firefighters remove their masks is that the masks restrict and confine and limit visibility. You can’t see or avoid certain injuries during overhaul with limited peripheral vision and fogging face pieces. The dangerous consequence of tripping and falling are tenfold, not to mention hitting your fellow firefighter in the head with a wielding tool inside dimly lit and ventilated structures.

So what should be the bottom line when establishing policies for the fireground and the overhaul phase of firefighting? Including more than simple and commonsense observations will encourage noncompliance. Here are my suggestions: Distinguish between first-stage primary overhaul and second-stage secondary overhaul.

First-Stage Overhaul. Primary overhaul occurs directly after extinguishment and control of the fire inside and outside the structure. Members involved in overhaul during the primary phase will be on air.

  • Have two handlines present within the structure during primary overhaul.
  • Avoid putting members into an overhaul stage with limited visibility and high-heat conditions, which could mean the fire may not be under control.
  • Assign a new team to overhaul. The company members who extinguished the fire should be in rehab.
  • Ensure that the structure is well ventilated; consider PPV if all fire is out.
  • Meter the structure for the presence of CO and other gases (according to your meter) when visibility is moderate to good.
  • When overhaul is necessary and CO and other gases are present, members should be on air and be required to exit when their low-air alarm activates. Replace them as needed.
  • Restrict the number of firefighters performing overhaul in any one given area or room, on air or off air, to prevent injuries.
  • The presence of a safety officer for air management and possibly sectional collapse control should be a priority.

Second-Stage Overhaul. This stage involves the same concerns as in the first stage, but air quality is acceptable for working without SCBA in well-ventilated areas; a mask filter system without positive pressure may be required.

Craig Shelley, fire protection advisor

Response: Our department’s policies require SCBA to be worn when firefighters enter an IDLH atmosphere or an atmosphere that may become IDLH. All firefighters must understand the definition of an IDLH atmosphere and be able to translate this definition into fireground practice. An IDLH atmosphere is the maximum level of danger to which you can be exposed and still escape without experiencing any effects that may impair escape or cause irreversible health effects.

Another definition commonly used for an IDLH environment is “an atmospheric concentration of any toxic, corrosive, or asphyxiating substance that poses an immediate threat to life.” During overhaul, CO conditions exist in the low smoke levels. This should be recognized as a condition that can affect firefighters’ health even though the strict definition of an IDLH atmosphere may not apply. The CO levels present may meet the definition of IDLH; however, without appropriate detection equipment, a firefighter will not know if the CO levels are high enough to be IDLH. The dusts generated by overhaul may be just as hazardous as the smoke. Asbestos may be present in dusts. Gypsum dust as well as animal feces found in older structures also can affect firefighter health. For this reason, SCBA use should be mandated during overhaul, whether or not an IDLH atmosphere is present or suspected.

The responsibility and accountability for using SCBA rest with the firefighters themselves, the company officer who supervises the overhaul operations, and the chief who sets policy and the tone for compliance.


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