Walking the walk: How FDs are setting the example to cure ‘Dirty Helmet Syndrome’

Fire service leaders share what works at their departments


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Culture wars within the fire service are easy to spot. Firefighters rumble online and at the kitchen table over transitional fire attack, helmet style, generational differences and other hot topics.

Perhaps the most entrenched division, however, relates to the fire service’s shift toward an increased focus on health and safety issues. Some firefighters actively seek out opportunities to dirty their gear – part of the machismo of the firefighter lifestyle. Others are following strict decontamination procedures to remove all evidence of fireground toxins – the fear of cancer weighing on them.

FireRescue1’s “Dirty Helmet Syndrome” special coverage series highlights the challenges associated with a culture shift of this nature and, of course, the “why” behind the change. But we also wanted to share a practical look at how this applies in real life – how actual fire departments are implementing change. We posed various questions to fire service leaders. Here’s what we learned:

From entry-level firefighters to the fire chief, all members must demonstrate the proper use and care of PPE and turnout gear.
From entry-level firefighters to the fire chief, all members must demonstrate the proper use and care of PPE and turnout gear. (Photo/Kristopher Blume)

“Does your department allow dirty or burned helmets? If not, what has the department done to stop this so-called badge of honor?”

Jason Caughey, the fire chief of Laramie County Fire District #2 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, shared his department’s approach:

Our organization does not allow burned or dirty gear. We have established a robust system for both on the fireground and after the incident to clean all of our PPE. This system is also utilized after live-fire training events.

The system begins with a cultural change:

  1. Recognizing that cancer is a real threat, and we can reduce our risk by wearing our SCBA, cleaning our gear, and showering immediately after calls or training.
  2. Establishing a committee to providing two sets of gear.
  3. Providing decon kits on the apparatus for post-fire decon.
  4. Building decon zones in the station to include SCBA wash stations, bottle wash stations, etc.
  5. Holding each other accountable.

For our organization, we decon post-fire on scene while wearing respiratory protection and barrier PPE, such as Tyvek suits and medical gloves. Once back in the station, all gear and tools are deconned while wearing respiratory protection.

During training events, we provide an off-gassing area for repetitive drills. The firefighter doffs their PPE in an assigned area to off-gas, then moves to a clean area for rehab. Prior to arriving at rehab, they are given N95 and fire wipes to wipe the critical areas. After training, all gear and tools are again deconned.

To hold each other accountable, we have created “Wash Me Tags” that can be hung in our members’ lockers if their gear is dirty or helmet is worn. Monthly I walk the racks of gear and hang tags on gear that needs to be washed.

The fire helmet is an iconic image for the fire service; however, it should not be an image of firefighters that have lost their life due to cancer. It all starts with leadership. Lead the change of promoting clean gear. Lead the image of honoring those who have died from cancer by demanding safer fireground operations to include replacing burned gear and worn-out helmets.

John Butler, fire chief of the Fairfax County (Va.) Fire and Rescue Department, weighed in as well:

The Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department (FRD) has over 1,400 uniformed personnel and 300 operational volunteer personnel. All uniformed personnel below the rank of battalion chief have two full sets of firefighter turnout gear (PPE), which creates a rotating stock of more than 3,300 sets of PPE. Station-level shift leaders perform monthly PPE checks to inspect the PPE for damage and fit, ensure personnel have the proper PPE, and assess PPE cleaning needs.

On the incident scene, all personnel who enter the IDLH atmosphere go through preliminary exposure reduction (PER) before entering rehabilitation. This is a soap and water wash performed while personnel are still utilizing the SCBA. At the tailboard review, the incident commander and safety officer determine which units must send their PPE in for out-of-cycle advanced cleaning based on their proximity to smoke inside the structure and PPE contamination.

All personnel participate in live-fire training at the FRD Fire and Rescue Academy (FRA). After each IDLH entry, personnel perform PER. When the training is complete, personnel leave their dirty PPE at the FRA and switch into their second set of PPE. The FRD Personal Protective Equipment Center (PPEC) picks up this gear from the FRA, performs an advanced cleaning, and returns it to the personnel at their assigned stations.

FRD follows NFPA 1581: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting. Every set of PPE receives a minimum of two advanced cleanings each year and one advanced inspection at the PPEC. PPEC personnel track the care and maintenance of PPE utilizing a bar code system that ensures all PPE meets this minimum standard. Personnel can send their PPE to the PPEC at any time for out-of-cycle cleaning if they determine the PPE is dirty, exposed to a pathogen, or needs repair.

FRD is currently involved with two studies regarding PPE contamination and decontamination. FRD personnel are involved in these studies to improve their knowledge of the hazards from long-term exposures to dirty PPE. This, along with messages from our safety officers after every structure fire, exposure documentation, and training regarding the dangers of exposure to the products of combustion, has helped to move FRD personnel away from the “dirty helmet syndrome.”

What’s the culture around gear-cleaning at your department? Are crewmembers shamed for not cleaning their PPE – or shamed for cleaning the gear?

Mark van der Feyst, a firefighter with the Woodstock Fire Department in Ontario, Canada, shared his perspective:

In my 22 years of experience working with a few different departments, the departments always promoted cleaning your gear. They provided the services for gear to be sent out to be cleaned or provided the washing machines on site to do so.

Individual firefighters may have been the ones to shame others for cleaning their gear, but most times, they were ignored by the vast majority. Very few firefighters were allowed to keep their gear dirty.

There was a schedule for gear-cleaning that required all gear to be cleaned at least twice in the year as well being inspected. This ensured that all sets of gear were at least cleaned twice a year. 

Note: We want to hear from you, the FireRescue1 community, as well. Share in the comments your departments approach to dirty gear.

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