Keeping our firefighters safe

Firefighters would do anything to protect the community they serve, but it’s important that they also take the necessary steps to protect themselves. 

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Por Kath Lockett
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A row of firefighters' helmets, coats, and boots in suspendered pants hang at the ready at a fire station in Oak Harbor.

“Firefighters are heroes.” We hear it all the time, from children, the media and young people looking for a rewarding career. It’s probably something you’ve said or thought yourself at one time or another. These brave men and women put their own safety on the line every day to protect their communities. Yet, amazingly, one of the most dangerous aspects of the job is not the fire itself, but the protective clothing they wear on the job. According to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, firefighters are significantly more likely to develop cancer due to their exposure to carcinogens. 

Firefighters come into contact with chemicals by breathing them in, getting them on their skin or ingesting them. If personal protective equipment (PPE) is not cleaned adequately after a fire response, the harmful toxins on the gear can contaminate vehicles and the fire station, and ultimately the people who wear it. David Matthews, Director of Fire and Industrial PPE Limited, says cancer-inducing chemicals that attach themselves to firefighter bunker gear are increasingly recognized as the biggest threat to a firefighter’s health and safety. “Fire smoke and particulates are an enormous cancer risk for these workers and awareness of this issue is growing,” he said.

“When firefighters take their gear home, these particulates can spread to their cars, public transport, homes, partners and children. It used to be a ‘badge of honour’ for a firefighter to have dirty PPE, which was rarely or not properly cleaned.” During his years of service as a firefighter, he recalls uniforms being hosed off at the station and hung on hooks to dry but is relieved to note that proper cleaning of PPE is now being taken seriously.

By following strict guidelines around proper turnout gear decontamination, we can greatly reduce the amount of exposure firefighters face when doing their jobs. Rising to the occasion, the new ISO 23616 provides guidelines on the proper selection, care and maintenance of protective ensembles for firefighters, which include cleaning, effective removal of contaminants and repair of their PPE. 

Firefighters are significantly more likely to develop cancer due to their exposure to carcinogens. 

COVID positive 

Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised awareness of the importance of PPE in many environments. Matthews agrees: “Before COVID, nobody knew what PPE stood for and even firefighters needed more education on its cleaning. The emphasis is on personal responsibility; not to travel back to the fire station in dirty PPE but to disrobe at the site, place the clothing in specially designated protective bags and have it properly laundered and maintained away from the site.”

PPE not only covers head protectors, face shields, gloves and boots, but the clothing worn by firefighters. It’s easy to imagine someone taking their firefighting clothing home and laundering it using a washing machine and detergent. However, the vast number of different types of washing machines, water temperatures, cleaning cycles and detergents available can all significantly affect the durability and safety of the PPE and contaminate other clothing that is being washed at the same time.  

Don’t do this at home 

The new ISO standard also covers repairs to PPE. What may seem like a simple repair, such as sewing a loose piece of reflective tape back on to your protective gear at home, could seriously impair the safety of the garment. The stitching could not only puncture the fabric, rendering it unsafe, but the thread could be flammable. Essentially, no PPE should be brought home, but should be taken care of by professional cleaners at the station. “Back at the station after a fire call-out, the issue of cleaning is often an afterthought and not dealt with properly. Even the repairers and cleaners need training and certification to ensure that all PPE is up to standard,” Matthews says.

Russell Shephard, Chair of the expert group that developed the standard, explains that PPE covers everything firefighters use from head to toe. “Each item has an important but different purpose, yet all need proper cleaning and maintenance,” he says. A 2020 study from Australia showed that carcinogenic contaminants were found in office chairs and carpets at fire stations, with air, dust and surface samples revealing that firefighters’ exposure to carcinogenic metals exceeded that of office workers several times over. In particular, the flame-retardant chemical known as PBDE-99 was found to be 70 times higher in firefighters than in office workers. Other research indicates that firefighters have become sick from using PPE that is not properly cleaned or cared for.

When it comes to PPE maintenance, volunteer firefighters pose an additional challenge. Volunteers make up the bulk of the firefighting corps in Germany, with over one million out of a total of 1.25 million. Australia relies on volunteers in a similar proportion. ISO 23616 provides a framework for educating and training these volunteers, and the staff who manage them, to ensure that their PPE is always clean, safe and properly maintained. While it remains the responsibility of the individual firefighter to undertake regular inspection of their PPE, thanks to the standard, there will soon also be a reliable system that includes training to ensure that this can effectively be achieved, whether for professional firefighters or volunteers. 

When it comes to PPE maintenance, volunteer firefighters pose an additional challenge.

Female firefighter putting on helmet.

Cost-risk benefit 

A fire department’s financial realities were also taken into consideration in the standard’s development. While using an independent service provider may be cost-prohibitive, particularly in smaller fire stations or departments that have the need for frequent garment cleaning based on number of firefighting calls, it is crucial that every firefighter start each job in clean and safe PPE.

Weighing up the importance of cost versus risk was fundamental in the creation of this standard. Whether the laundry is handled internally or outsourced, having the right equipment and processes in place will provide peace of mind. “I’d rather see them wear clean gear every day of the week and replace it after the shelf-life and acceptable ageing limits given by the PPE manufacturer have been reached,” Shepherd says. “It is not ‘just PPE,’ it’s the stuff that will save your life.” Fire and rescue services and manufacturers of PPE need clear instructions and guidelines on how to manage cost and minimize risk. 

From head to toe 

ISO 23616 also provides instructions and guidance regarding more advanced cleaning, inspection and repairs. “We tend to focus on helmets, air respirators and vests, but not on boots,” says Matthews. “There are ways to safely clean them by hand, but there are also specialized machines that can do this, along with gloves, which are also difficult to clean properly. Many busy fire stations already use these or send their PPE to qualified cleaning services outside of the station. By following the simple guidelines in ISO 23616, all stakeholders in the fire and emergency industries will reduce their exposure to contaminated PPE.”

Until recently, only large urban fire services had structured cleaning and maintenance programmes, but, with the new standard, it is anticipated that many fire services across the world, especially those that rely on volunteer firefighters, will establish modern cleaning and maintenance programmes.

As a former firefighter himself, and Head of the Health and Safety Union for Firefighters in the UK, Matthews believes that successfully addressing the concerns for maintaining safe PPE is key. “There is a large amount of support,” he says. “Many countries do not have an established PPE cleaning system, yet recognize that the safety of their firefighters is paramount. ISO 23616 is the most appropriate and effective standard for establishing processes and guidelines for risk aversion, risk awareness and risk prevention. Let’s win the fight against contaminants so more lives can be saved.”

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