You just got back to the station from battling a heavily involved structure fire. You go through the motions of getting back in service—replacing the sooted cross lays with fresh hose and washing the apparatus, tools and equipment. Everyone even shares a laugh at the expense of the rookie for steaming the captain because the nozzle was on full fog instead of a narrow pattern during initial fire suppression efforts.
But one critical step was skipped, which occurs frequently: decontamination of the sooted PPE.
How often is your PPE decontaminated? After each use? Once a month? Quarterly? Semi-annually? Or even annually?
For busy houses, this may be difficult due to call volume. However, the changing out of PPE should happen as frequently as possible, especially for those departments that have at least two sets of PPE per firefighter. You may often hear such comments as, "Look at that rookie gear" or "I don't want to have chief gear." We assume that if firefighters have clean gear, they haven't been involved in mitigating a fire.
Hopefully, emergency responders will abandon such ideas and embrace a safer practice of PPE maintenance. Inspections of PPE should take place at the beginning and end of every shift or after an exposure to a hazardous environment.
Firefighting gloves should be kept clean and free of dirt, hydrocarbons or any other substances. Helmets should also be kept clean and all reflective trim should be in place. The inner liner should be in place and free of damage, buildup of dirt, hydrocarbons, or other substances.
Heavily soiled PPE contains carbon and other harmful solids from the combustion process, and some of these toxic materials are known carcinogens. Repeated exposure to such products may not immediately show harmful side effects, but could cause illness due to chronic exposure. Our health and the health of our coworkers and family can be suitably protected if we implement the appropriate initiatives, including proper self-decontamination when returning to the station from after a response. This will help prevent the accidental ingestion of harmful products and cross contamination.
Our profession is one of distinct merit and admiration among the communities we serve. We spend a lot of time focusing on how we can help others and occasionally forget about taking care of ourselves.
Our families depend on us to make sure the trophies we bring back from calls are pictures that personnel took and not harmful toxins we have on our gear—those trophies need to be washed away as soon as possible.