Respiratory Exposure Study for Fire Fighters

Published on February 17, 2012

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"Respiratory Exposure Study for Fire Fighters and Other Emergency Responders"

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Fire Protection Research Foundation report: "Respiratory Exposure Study for Fire Fighters and Other Emergency Responders"
Author: Casey C. Grant, P.E., Fire Protection Research Foundation.
Date of issue: December 2007

Executive summary

This study provides information for firefighters and other emergency responders to help develop best practice guidance for determining when to use and discontinue use of SCBA and other respiratory protective equipment. The applications of primary focus include atmospheres that are possibly hazardous yet tenable, such as during overhaul operations, fighting outdoor fires, or limited exposure situations.   

 The approach used includes a literature review of research on respiratory exposure, a summary of field measurement technology currently available, and a summary review of selected fire department Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and Standard Operating Guidelines (SOGs) relating to respiratory exposure. 

The results of the literature review provide an extensive compilation of applicable articles, reports, and other literature that provides researchers and others with a useful platform to better address the multiple facets of this topic deserving further study.  The literature collected resulted in a compilation of over 200 citations that provide helpful background information on the health effects to fire fighting personnel, characteristics of the environment, and the tools that are used for respiratory protection. 

The information collection form was distributed to a diverse group of fire departments and the results clarify how the fire service approaches certain field practices.  The 130 unique departments provide a composite view of how the fire service uses respiratory protective equipment and hand held gas monitoring equipment to determine the conditions to remove SCBA in an environment that is questionable yet tolerable, such as during overhaul or exterior fires. 

Among the findings of the literature review is an indication that the atmospheres encountered by fire fighters and other emergency responders, both at interior or exterior applications, have hazardous components that should be of concern to all who may be exposed to these atmospheres.  Further, for certain applications such as those faced by fire investigators or wildland fire fighters, additional protective measures should be considered for the on-going respiratory hazards they face.  The literature review also indicates that fire fighters have a higher rate of long-term adverse health effects, like cancer, than the rest of the general population, although the precise cause of these ailments is not clear, and the respiratory concerns faced by fire fighters operating at structural fires today appear to be changing from similar exposures occurring approximately 1 to 4 decades ago, based on the changing characteristics of the materials that are burning in a typical building fire. 

The information collection component of this study provides additional helpful data.  Most of the responding fire departments have SOPs/SOGs to indicate when to use SCBA, but fewer address when to discontinue the use of SCBA.  Most also generally have hand-held portable monitoring equipment for carbon monoxide calls and hazardous materials incidents, and they're using this equipment to measure hazardous environments elsewhere, such as during overhaul.  

For the fire departments that are measuring airborne contaminants, most of those responding to the information collection are measuring carbon monoxide, oxygen, flammable gases, and hydrogen sulfide. In fewer numbers, fire departments are also measuring hydrogen cyanide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and other toxic gases. A clear indication appears to be lacking of what fire departments should optimally be measuring, and guidance is needed for the measurement of multiple components of the hazardous environment for fire departments that are focusing only on individual airborne contaminants.