Once the imminent danger of an active fire has passed, firefighters are still at risk of exposure to harmful chemicals at the fireground. Building materials, furnishings, and other items can produce toxic chemicals when burned, leaving carcinogenic residue, and other harmful byproducts, on the surrounding surfaces. If not properly decontaminated, firefighter turnout gear can present an ongoing hazard to anybody who comes into contact with it.
Common Mistakes in Firefighter Decontamination After a Fire
Understanding the most common mistakes—and how to avoid them—can protect firefighters from potentially harmful health effects.
1. Not Taking Gear Decontamination Seriously
Contaminated turnout gear is a source of harmful carcinogens that increase the risk of cancer for firefighters. Despite the direct link to cancer, firefighter culture has historically encouraged the look of dirty gear as a badge of honor. Although this is changing, the risks are still real, so both individual firefighters and stations must take them seriously.
How to avoid this common mistake: Leadership sets the tone when it comes to firehouse culture. Create a culture of safety that includes a strong commitment to gear decontamination.
2. Not Allowing Gear to Thoroughly Dry
Whether gear is sprayed down with water, soap, or chemicals, if it is not given time to dry, mold can grow. Too often, gear is dried improperly or left wet, causing mold issues. This not only leads to unpleasant odors, but also presents health risks to the wearer.
How to avoid this mistake: Use a gear dryer or hang the gear out of direct sunlight until it is completely dry.
3. Not Reassembling Gear Correctly
When gear is deconstructed during the decontamination, it is critical to assemble it properly to ensure the safety of firefighters. For example, safety harnesses must be correctly assembled and positioned for future quick uses.
How to avoid this mistake: Full inspection by a qualified person after firefighter gear decontamination can ensure the gear is properly reassembled.
4. Not Washing Gear Frequently
Gear decontamination takes time, which is one reason it so often gets put off. However, when established procedures are not followed—including the recommended cleaning frequency—it can result in a backlog of contaminated and dangerous gear.
Not all firehouses have improper cleaning equipment or have limited resources and can only wash one or two sets of gear at a time, contributing to the backlog. Firehouses only have so much equipment, and if firefighters have to use dirty gear because it hasn’t been decontaminated, it presents an unnecessary health risk.
How to avoid this mistake: Consider outsourcing decontamination. For example, a Decon7 Mobile Extraction Unit® with same-day service can maintain a decontamination schedule and avoid a backlog.
5. Not Washing Gear Correctly
Turnout gear and garments must be washed in a specific way to ensure full decontamination without damaging the equipment, causing unwanted wear and tear, or creating unintended cross-contamination. Mixing outer shells and inner liners is a common mistake that teams make when cleaning gear. This can result in cross-contamination because the inner shell liner functions like a sponge and absorbs contaminants from the outer shell.
How to avoid this mistake: Training is essential for ensuring that gear gets washed and decontaminated correctly every time.
6. Not Using Proven Products
Just because a product claims it can decontaminate turnout gear does not mean it’s tested. When untested products are used, there is a risk that they will be ineffective and toxic residue will remain on gear.
How to avoid this mistake: Ask manufacturers for proof that their products are effective against harmful carcinogens to ensure that they can decontaminate after a fire.
The Decon7 Mobile Decontamination Solution
The Decon7 Mobile Extraction Unit (MEU) is an onsite decontamination solution that includes:
- A custom washer for inner and outer shells.
- A tumble dryer for inner shells.
- A drying cabinet for outer shells.
- A self-contained water supply and storage for wastewater.
- An ultrasonic cleaning unit.
- An ozone cleaning station for processing wastewater.
- A hydrostatic and reflection testing station.
Fire stations can contract gear decontamination to a local company that has an MEU. For example, Redline Cleaning in Massachusetts uses the MEU to:
- Clean 40 plus sets of gear (including boots, helmets and gloves) per day, saving crew time.
- Perform required six-month decontaminations and inspections.
- Handle rapid-response cleaning to treat gear within two days of exposure.
- Decontaminate stations and equipment to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.
Decon7 has partnered with RedLine Cleaning to offer MEU services to the south central region. RedLine covers the areas east of Mississippi. To learn more, visit the Decon7 Mobile Extraction Unit services webpage.