Author(s): Ken Willette. Published on May 1, 2015.

I RECENTLY LEARNED THAT, almost 40 years ago, hundreds of airport rescue firefighters may have been exposed to a toxic hazard as part of their training and response duties. Investigations had found that the aircraft used in this training had been part of a fleet that previously sprayed Agent Orange, a dioxin-based defoliant, during the Vietnam War, and that traces of the cancer-causing chemical remained in the airplanes.

The news was of interest to me, since I was one of those firefighters.

While our exposure was far less than that of the aircraft crews, we did frequent training and familiarizations in these planes, often with no personal protective equipment (PPE). We never decontaminated our PPE, and routinely washed our station uniforms at home with the family laundry. I thought of my fellow firefighters from this era of my career and how many of them have been lost to cancer.

I use the term “IDLH”—short for “immediately dangerous to life and health”—to describe the work environment firefighters operate in. The term conveys the potentially severe impact this environment could have on firefighters—cancer, respiratory afflictions, and other problems—if they do not protect themselves.

What they should protect themselves against varies depending upon whom you ask. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, for example, focuses on exposure to airborne contaminants that are “likely to cause death or immediate or delayed permanent adverse health effects or prevent escape from such an environment.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration warns against situations that pose “an immediate threat to life, would cause irreversible adverse health effects, or would impair an individual’s ability to escape from a dangerous atmosphere.” In short, an IDLH area is a bad place to be.

For over 40 years, NFPA has sought to protect firefighters against the IDLH atmosphere, producing a library of PPE standards that provide protection from airborne contaminants as well as atmospheres of low oxygen, toxic gases, and high temperatures. NFPA 1971, Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, and NFPA 1981, Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) for Emergency Services, form the backbone of this protection by stating design, testing, and certification criteria. The recommendations have evolved to improve levels of protection, exemplified by embracing advanced textiles for PPE and improved materials for SCBA facepieces.

To ensure the PPE worn by firefighters achieves the intended protection, NFPA supports development of NFPA 1851, Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, and NFPA 1852, Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA). These documents list routine inspection criteria, as well as when PPE requires a simple cleaning, decontamination, or removal from service. Equal responsibility is placed on the user and the agency that supplied the PPE, because they each bear a high level of risk if the equipment fails.  

PPE is an important part of a firefighter’s protection against exposure to carcinogens, but it needs to be maintained and cleaned, as recommended by NFPA 1851. SCBA should be worn during overhaul as well as active firefighting. As my own experience illustrates, you never know what you’re exposed to.

KEN WILLETTE is division manager for Public Fire Protection at NFPA.