Contamination and Decontamination of Bunker Gear
By Jeffrey O. and Grace G. Stull
Nowadays, a fire can be as much a hazardous materials incident as a structural fire. The combustion of building materials (plastics, rubber and various synthetic materials) at any fire — residential or commercial — releases a number of toxic substances. On top of that, the presence of common chemicals — fuels, lubricants, cleaning supplies, pesticides, pool additives — further contributes to the types of contaminants released during a structural fire. Burning itself releases soot, which is unburned carbon from incomplete combustion and causes much of the soiling found in clothing materials. While the carbon itself is not hazardous, the soot particles act like little sponges absorbing and retaining fire gases and then become entrained in firefighter clothing.
In addition, firefighters often are exposed to liquid hazards, such as petroleum products, paints, solvents and other chemicals, which splash onto clothing or are vaporized and then deposited onto clothing and equipment surfaces. In many cases, these chemicals may simply evaporate from the clothing materials through continued heat exposure. Some chemicals may react differently and become something different (and more dangerous), affect the performance of clothing by causing degradation of certain materials, or remain absorbed in clothing fibers and components for continued exposure.
The hazards of contaminated clothing are well established. Dirty clothing reflects less heat, is more conductive, and can be less breathable. Certain hydrocarbons and solvents can render the clothing more flammable and actually make the clothing hazardous. In addition, trim on the clothing may not offer the same level of visibility, and closures may not work well as they become fouled with debris. Generally overlooked is the hazard posed by contaminants present in the clothing and the day-to-day exposure a firefighter might endure from those contaminants. Granted that the fire scene itself is full of contaminants, the real hazard is when exposures persist for longer periods of time.
The best practice is to keep clothing clean. You should rise clothing off after every working fire and subject it to a comprehensive cleaning every six month. The frequency of this cleaning will depend on your activity and how often your clothing is exposed to a fire ground environment or other responses where contamination can occur. Routine cleaning of clothing (according to manufacturer instructions, of course) simply makes sense; it minimizes your exposure to hazardous substances and improves the service life of your protective clothing.
When unusual chemical contamination is suspected based on information or direct evidence that indicates hazardous materials are present at a fire or other incident, special steps have to be taken. First,segregate the clothing from other clothing and equipment. This means taking it out of service and having a plan to provide back-up gear to the exposed firefighters. The next step is to seek expert help. This help may come from your local hazardous materials team, manufacturer contacts, or others with a hazardous materials background. These individuals will try to determine the nature of the exposure and if the clothing can be decontaminated. That decision will be based on the substances involved, the level of contamination, and if there are known, effective methods for removing the chemicals. Simple washing can remove some contaminants, but in some cases, it will be necessary to apply completely different techniques, such as using a specialized cleaning service provider that is familiar with bunker gear. Another option is to dispose of the clothing if there are concerns that decontamination will not be effective. Something as simple as paint, which has covered a significant portion of the clothing, can be cause for destroying the clothing.
One of the most difficult contamination problems is when the fire department does not know what it was exposed to. This situation may become an issue when firefighters complain about unusual discoloration of their clothing, prolonged skin irritation, or other instances where chemicals are suspected. One approach is to send out a sample set of clothing to a laboratory that might able to identify the causative substance, but this can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Even so, it is important to use a lab that knows what they are doing and to make a comparison against uncontaminated clothing samples. Even if the analysis shows substances are present, it might not be readily determined that the substances pose specific harm since there are few dermal exposure limits set for chemicals. Moreover, this practice will result in destroying the clothing as the analytical methods used are destructive. Analytical testing of clothing for contaminants best works where there is a clearly identified area of material contamination and there is information from the scene that can contribute to test findings.
The key to dealing with contamination is to keep clothing clean and well maintained, to use vigilance in monitoring clothing for signs of contamination, and to be aware of hazardous exposures. If contamination does occur, the clothing should be treated as if there was a hazardous materials incident. Get the appropriate personnel and resources involved. When known to be effective, decontamination procedures specific to the chemicals involved can be applied. Otherwise the clothing must be disposed of. Applying these steps helps firefighters reduce one more hazard in their otherwise hazardous profession.