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Fighting Fires Safely

  • Kristin Kloberdanz
  • Posted March 11, 2013

Every year, more than 100 firefighters die in the line of duty. Here are some recommendations from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for saving firefighters' lives:

  • Reduce on-duty heart attacks by screening, minimizing stress, and encouraging physician involvement. NIOSH -- whose fatality investigations include many firefighters felled by sudden cardiac arrest -- recommends annual medical evaluations to determine whether firefighters are healthy enough to perform emergency duties and wear respirators. The agency further advises that all firefighters be enrolled in a mandatory fitness and wellness program.
  • To prevent falls through collapsed floors, before entering a structure, look to see if the fire is coming from underneath the building, or directly underneath an area where firefighters would be working. Do not enter the building or the area if theres a fire coming from underneath the floor, or if the location of the fire is unknown.
  • To protect against suffocation, heart attacks, and poisoning, wear respirators (known in the trade as a self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBAs) whenever you enter a potentially dangerous atmosphere.
  • To screen for carbon monoxide poisoning, check the carboxyhemoglobin levels on any unconscious or ill firefighters exposed to smoke.
  • Report symptoms of a heart attack -- including chest pain and shortness of breath -- to your supervisor immediately.
  • To prevent deaths from structural collapse, make sure that some type of tone or alert that all firefighters recognize is immediately transmitted when conditions become so dangerous that they need to do an emergency evacuation.
  • Firefighters entering a burning building should have equipment for two-way communication with the command team. All should be equipped with audible alarms, called personal alert safety system or PASS devices.
  • Ensure that Rapid Intervention Crews/Teams of Firefighters Assist and Search Teams (FAST Truck) are there to rescue firefighters from a building in the event of emergency.
  • Prevent deaths by suffocation through programs that teach fire fighters how to safely do "entry and rescues" in confined spaces.
  • Guard against suffocation by determining whether entry is necessary, testing the air quality in the confined space, and using ventilation apparatus if necessary. The agency also advises that all firefighters be "continuously trained" in confined space entry and rescue procedures and how to select and use respirators, lifelines, protective clothing, and human hoist systems.
  • To protect yourself while fighting a chemical or pesticide fire, wear protective clothing. This includes a liquid-proof raincoat: waterproof hat with a wide brim: neoprene gloves and boots (worn with the sleeves and trouser legs outside); face shields and goggles; and self-contained breathing equipment (SCBAs) for anyone exposed to fumes or smoke.
  • Be familiar with fumigants used in your community. Some can pass through neoprene, so take other precautions if those chemicals are involved in a fire.
  • Attack a chemical fire upwind or crosswind, not downwind. Be aware that bottles, drums, metal, and aerosol cans may explode.
  • Use water and detergents to thoroughly (and immediately) wash anyone who's had contact with toxic or unknown chemicals.
  • Remove any firefighters who are exposed to fumes or smoke without respiratory protection. Anyone who shows symptoms of poisoning -- which include headache, blurred vision, coughing, tightness of the chest, salivating, eye twitching, and a pupil that doesn't contract when exposed to bright light -- needs prompt medical attention. (These symptoms may not show up for up to 12 hours after the exposure.)
  • Be aware that aluminum attachments that regulate the flow of oxygen from pressured oxygen tanks can flash flames up to 4-feet high during fires. NIOSH has documented at least 14 incidents involving job injuries, including serious burns, to 15 firefighters. The agency recommends using regulators made of bronze, brass, or other materials that are more heat-resistant.
  • Make sure you are up to date with tetanus toxoid shots (needed every 10 years).
  • If you're exposed to blood or bodily fluids and are concerned about possible HIV transmission, seek professional counseling and consider prophylactic treatment for HIV exposure. Also, after being exposed to blood or bodily fluids, you should be periodically monitored for HIV, hepatitis C, and hepatitis B antibodies.

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