We’d be hard-pressed to find a firefighter who doesn’t think they look cool in their turnout gear. Members of the public love to see their firefighters and nothing makes you stand out in a crowd more than your gear. Unfortunately, that very gear might be exposing you — and the public you’re sworn to protect — to a multitude of substances known to have lasting negative impacts on the human body.
Your turnout gear is designed to protect you from most of the hazards of firefighting. It does that by providing barriers between you and the environment. Since most fire departments operate under the “all-hazard” approach, you probably find yourself wearing your turnout gear at fires, hazardous materials incidents, motor vehicle accidents, and maybe even some EMS calls. This results in the gear absorbing any number of compounds including chemicals, biohazards, and carcinogens.
As a fire service, we’ve become much better at working to clean many contaminates from dirty turnout gear. But we’re not scoring 100%. Many departments don’t have the facilities or the budget to provide their members with gear that is properly cleaned after each use. That means those substances are loitering on your dirty gear, just waiting for a new place to call home.
Unfortunately, that very gear might be exposing you – and the public you’re sworn to protect – to a multitude of substances known to have lasting negative impacts on the human body.
Limiting Firefighter Exposure
So, what can be done to reduce the exposure for both our members and the public? The easiest answer is for personnel to get out of their gear as soon as practical following a call. If possible, dirty gear can go through a gross decon at the scene and get bagged for transport back to the station. If that isn’t an option, the personnel gear and rig should head back to the station immediately following the call so everything can get thoroughly cleaned. Notice my choice of words. Everyone and everything should go back to the station. This isn’t the time to stop at the grocery store or a fast-food restaurant.
Why no stops on the way back to the station? If personnel are still in their gear, it means they are going to be exposed to any contaminants (including the ones that are supposed to be in your bunker gear) for longer than is necessary. As a fire service, we are just learning about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are known carcinogens, being impregnated into the very turnout gear that is intended to protect us. It’s critical to reduce the amount of time personnel spend in their gear to decrease their PFAS exposure as much as possible.
Limiting Exposure to the Public
Then, we have the public to consider. Wearing dirty turnout gear into that grocery store or fast-food restaurant means members are exposing the public to those harmful substances. Not only are personnel likely to track in visible contamination on their boots, pants, and coats; they will also be emitting any number of harmful compounds that are not readily seen.
When you leave sooty footprints, sheetrock dust, and bits of insulation in your wake as you stroll down the produce aisle, do you think about the person who’s going to have to clean up after you? To the public, a firefighter in dirty turnout gear is an up-close and personal mini-hazmat incident. Chances are the worker who gets assigned to clean up the mess you left isn’t even going to understand their exposure potential. They don’t know that everything you’re wearing spent the last few hours absorbing all sorts of harmful contaminants. The kid with the broom, dust pan, and mop is going to have no idea that they’re sweeping up material that is known to cause cancer, and more than likely won’t have the benefit of any kind of mask or even gloves.
The children in the young family standing behind you in the checkout line are probably in awe of the firefighter waiting to pay for groceries. To those kids, you are the epitome of a hero — larger than life — and you’re standing right in front of them. After the kids leave the store, they may start to complain of a headache and a scratchy throat. The parents won’t think too much of it. After all, kids are always picking up a bug here or there. But what if it isn’t a bug? What if their symptoms are caused by something that was off-gassing from your gear? The big hero firefighter may have just exposed those kids to something that can cause short-term symptoms and possibly lead to long-term medical issues.
Changing Our Mindset
To be honest, I grew up in the “dirty” fire service. We didn’t have gear washers at every station and we only had one set off turnout gear per person. We often went to the store on the way back from a call, leaving a path of stink and soot. But 25 to 30 years ago, the fire service looked at health and wellness in a completely different light. In those days, we were more worried about bloodborne pathogens than long-term health risks.
Early in my career, I was taught to avoid putting on medic gloves until we were on the scene. Why is that? Well, it comes down to muscle memory. You didn’t touch a patient without gloves on, but you also didn’t touch anything in the rig with your gloves on. Likewise, when a medical call is over, you take off your gloves, dispose of them properly, and get a new set for the next call. The whole point was to avoid cross-contamination.
We need to consider wearing turnout gear in the same way. After all, you’re not going to walk into a store without first taking off your bloody gloves and disinfecting your hands. Why would you do the same in your dirty turnout gear?
Looking cool is fun, but the coolest thing you can do for yourself and the public is to avoid unnecessary exposure to the carcinogens, biohazards, and chemicals that are always lurking in your dirty turnout gear.