Protecting driver/operators from fireground health hazards

Appropriate PPE can reduce respiratory, vision and hearing risks

Driver/operators of pumping fire apparatus typically are “one-person bands” after they arrive on the scene and set the apparatus parking brake.

If you are serving in this role, you may be required to quickly:

  • Get the water supply established;
  • Ensure hoselines are fully deployed with no kinks;
  • Bring forcible-entry tools close to the point of entry; and
  • Ladder a second-floor window for emergency egress for the interior team.
Driver/operators face several health risks to a greater degree than firefighters who are not driving and operating fire apparatus.
Driver/operators face several health risks to a greater degree than firefighters who are not driving and operating fire apparatus. (Photos/Erin Hooley for the Chicago Tribune via MCT)

There is typically no direct supervision or safety officer watching over the scene at this point. It's therefore incumbent upon you to take responsibility for your own safety and well-being.

In this article, we’ll discuss several health risks facing driver/operators, specifically respiratory system, vision and hearing risks, and then explore the measures driver/operators can take to manage those risks more safely, effectively and efficiently.


Many driver/operators do not wear their SCBA while performing their tasks upon arrival at a structure fire – but that needs to change.

In her book “Exposed: Carcinogen Exposures on the Fireground and 11 Work Practices to Minimize the Risk,” Dawn Bolstad-Johnson – an industrial hygienist by education and training who spent 19 years working in the Safety Section of the Phoenix Fire Department – describes the case of a long-serving PFD engineer who developed chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CCL). CCL is not typically hereditary. This type of cancer is, however, on most “presumed firefighter cancer” lists.

Bolstad-Johnson says CCL occurs more often in fire engineers than any other firefighters, and it could be linked to the fact that driver/operators do not wear SCBA while taking care of their fireground responsibilities. Specifically, there are respiratory exposures unique to the driver/operator present in the fireground environment. They can include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Smoke from hostile fires;
  • Diesel engine exhaust emissions as they move in and around the fire apparatus; and
  • Exhaust emissions from small engines (e.g., generators, smoke blowers, power plants for hydraulic rescue tools).

Bolstad-Johnson recommends the following work practices to decrease respiratory risk while completing driver/operator tasks on the fireground:

  • Work at improving the initial positioning of the fire apparatus so it is upwind and uphill as often as possible, while still in a good tactical position for the crew.
  • Don SCBA when exiting the cab. If you don't do it then, you're in danger because when the wind shifts and you are engulfed in smoke, it's already too late.
  • If you've been in smoke (with your PPE and SCBA in place), you should go through initial decontamination reduction just like everyone else who was in the hot zone.

Afraid fellow firefighters will make fun of you? Just ask them if they're willing to go into a structure fire without their SCBA. Stand up for yourself. It’s your health that’s at risk.


In a previous article, “How to buy protective fire eyewear,” I posed the following question: “We are only issued one pair of eyes, so why risk losing precious eyesight when wearing safety glasses or protective goggles can keep your eyes safe for a lifetime of good vision?”

The risk of eye injury is present during the entire work cycle for fire and EMS personnel in both emergency and non-emergency settings. The best course of action is to become proactive in wearing protective eyewear.

According to the organization Prevent Blindness, more than 700,000 Americans injure their eyes at work each year. Because vision experts say proper protective eyewear could prevent up to 90% of all eye injuries, I encourage you to learn more about the safety glasses and goggles that best suit your lifestyle.

Need another reason to wear protective eye wear as a driver/operator? How about the eye protection requirements contained in NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program (2021 Edition)? The requirements of NFPA 1500 for firefighter eye protection include:

  • The use of primary eye protection whenever a firefighter is operating on a fire ground without a SCBA facepiece in use; and
  • Definition of primary eye protection as protection that meets the spectacle or goggle requirements of ANSI/ISEA Z87.1: American National Standard for Occupational and Educational Eye and Face Protection, which is an additional product performance standard.


Awareness of the threat to our hearing posed by being a firefighter is growing. As is the case with increased awareness of other threats, like cancer and heart disease, we must focus our concerns on our work environment and our work behaviors.

Hearing losses occur in firefighters because we work in noisy surroundings, and we historically have not taken the necessary precautions to protect our hearing. For the most part, we provide much of the noise in our environment (e.g., running fire apparatus and portable engine power equipment) both on the fireground and back at the fire station (e.g., conducting operational checks on equipment).

Take charge of protecting your hearing with the following actions:

  • Always use radio headsets provided on your apparatus;
  • Wear ear protection of choice (e.g., noise-reducing earplugs, ear canal caps or earmuffs) while doing any work that exposes you to high-decibel noise sources; and
  • Carry disposable foam earplugs while on-duty so that you're never caught without hearing protection.


Driver/operators face several health risks to a greater degree than firefighters who are not driving and operating fire apparatus. Those risks to your respiratory system, vision and hearing are real, and it’s incumbent upon you to take responsibility for your health and welfare by using the appropriate PPE and following the work practices contained in this article.

[Bonus Resource: How to buy turnout gear]

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