Author(s): Kathleen Almand. Published on March 2, 2015.

FOR DECADES, NFPA STAFF HAS INCLUDED a group of dedicated local firefighters who work part-time in the association’s Fire Analysis and Research Division. In 2002, one of these data specialists, Bob “Booboo” McCarthy, retired from the Quincy (Massachusetts) Fire Department. Bob was ready to take it easy, but he also wanted to continue with his NFPA position. Just months into his retirement, however, he was diagnosed with cancer. Before the year was out, the disease had claimed Booboo’s life.

Too many of us have similar stories, of firefighters who have lasted only briefly into their retirement years. While many of us share an instinctive concern that a firefighter’s constant exposure to the fire ground environment is “not good,” clear scientific evidence on the topic is evolving, albeit slowly, but much of it still remains elusive. Nevertheless, in terms of exposure to harmful products of combustion, it can be easily argued that every fire is effectively a haz-mat event, and every structure fire is effectively a confined-space entry event. Today, the long-term health of firefighters is a clear research priority.

In 2007, the Fire Protection Research Foundation published “Respiratory Exposure Study for Fire Fighters,”. The focus of this effort was to provide useful information for firefighters and other emergency responders to help develop best-practice guidance for determining when to use (and discontinue use of) self-contained breathing apparatus and other respiratory protective equipment. The primary focus included atmospheres that are possibly hazardous yet tenable, such as during overhaul operations, fighting outdoor fires, or limited-exposure situations. The study included a summary of available field measurement technology, a review of selected fire department standard operating procedures/guidelines for respiratory exposure, and a literature review to facilitate additional research on the topic. We dedicated the report to Booboo and others in the fire service whom we’d lost too early.

Since that study, the subject has become an active area of research in the fire safety community. Last year, the Foundation published “Data Collection Summary for PPE Care and Maintenance,” which focused on the questions of when gear is considered dirty and when it’s considered contaminated. The goal was to provide a data collection summary of current practices and policies and help guide standards revisions as well as support future research. A widely distributed survey with more than 1,100 fire service respondents was most revealing, indicating the broad interest in this topic.

Now the Foundation is embarking on another important study, “PPE Cleaning Procedures,” a project intended to clarify the cleaning methods required by NFPA 1851, Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting. It will address questions like “How clean is clean?” and “What do you do with gear exposed to chemical or biological substances such as Ebola?” The Foundation is currently seeking support on this topic through its website, nfpa.org/ppecleaning.

The fire safety community is making noteworthy progress addressing the long-term health concerns related to firefighter exposure to hazardous substances, but we have a long way to go. The Foundation welcomes your support as we work collectively to resolve these important health and safety issues.

KATHLEEN H. ALMAND, P.E., FSFPE, is vice president, Research, at NFPA, and executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.