One of the characteristics firefighters enjoy about the fire service is its
culture. On December 4, 2017, Dallas (TX) Fire-Rescue’s Safety Division
was charged with and set out to change some of that culture. It would
be the day the Safety Division was faced with its toughest challenge. We
asked, “How do we get one of the most traditional fire departments in the
country to understand how real the cancer epidemic is in the fire service?
How do we get them to understand that fireground contaminants are
deadly? How do we get our firefighters to understand that ‘clean is cool,’
regarding our PPE? How do we explain to firefighters in Texas that they
must wear their SCBA and PPE throughout active and postfire environments?” Over the next several months, the plan began to fall into place.
Pouring the Foundation
First and foremost, the head of your department, the chief, must
be 100 percent supportive of your endeavor. Every person with the
responsibility of developing and implementing such a program must
mirror the same support. If the actions and rhetoric of those in high
places don’t match your goal, building a fireground contamination
policy and program and gaining compliance will be a struggle.
Next, the process of selecting an individual from your department to
build such a program will be critical to its success. The individual chosen
to develop and manage such a program must have credibility throughout the organization. Selecting someone with a good work ethic and a
passion for serving firefighters and their families will go a long way.
Building the Program
Build a program with the mindset that it must be effective, yet convenient. Start with the basics and build from there. My son is 13 years
old, and if he walked up to me and said, “Dad, I want to bench press
200 pounds,” my response would be, “Great, let’s start with 50 pounds,
and we will build from there.” Building a contamination control program is no different; start with the basics, get members comfortable,
and then add a little more to the program. The most basic and simple
best practices are extremely effective at reducing contamination.
Research and data collection are critical—they will support your program and help gain credibility. There are numerous papers, studies, and
NFPA standards supporting the change in culture. NFPA 1851 is a great
place to start. Look at best practices in the fire service. Gather policies
from other departments and assess what best fits your department.
Don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel!
Once you have completed your research and data collection, write
an exposure reduction/fireground contamination program for your
department. The cost of implementing an effective and a convenient
program is minimal and achievable. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
First, performing on-scene exposure reduction procedures can be as
simple as rinsing your gear before removing any piece of your ensemble
(including your SCBA and face piece) before leaving the scene. Eighty
percent of the carcinogens firefighters are exposed to are water soluble. Simple and effective!
Second, the cost of extractors and locating a verified independent
service provider to clean PPE can be challenging. Your department can
purchase a couple of 50-gallon trash cans and be effective at initially
removing contamination. Fill one can with an NFPA 1851-compliant deter-
gent and water mixture and the second with just water. Separate the liners
from the shell, place the liners in the detergent/water solution, agitate the
liners with a broom handle, and let the liners soak for up to an hour. Move
the liners to the water can for rinsing. Duplicate the process for the outer
shells. The faster firefighters address contamination, the more effective
the results. The longer a coffee stain stays on a shirt, the more difficult it
is to remove. Having a written policy and procedures in place signals to the
members of the department the commitment to a long and healthy career.
Educate, Educate, and Educate Some More!
What may be the most crucial component to building a fireground
contamination program is educating members on why the policy and
procedures were written and what the department has developed
to minimize or reduce fireground contamination. If the department
explains why it is asking members to do something new and different
from the norm, the initial compliance will be greater. The size and
structure of your department will decide how you best approach
reaching your audience. You must get face-to-face with as many
members, especially company officers, as possible and present your
evidence for culture change. Use other departments as evidence of
the movement and the seriousness of fireground contamination.
Emphasize the fact that fire departments are no longer encountering
burning natural material but now battling synthetic materials. No
more cotton mattresses—but memory foam instead. These synthetic
materials are making firefighters sick.
For your presentation, use three or four credible research projects
or studies. Highlight important areas to substantiate your program
development. Provide current statistics relating to cancer diagnosis
and other health-related issues. Reference NFPA standards such as
NFPA 1851 and explain the content and the impact. Provide pictures
of contaminated gear soaking in detergent and the amount of
contamination that is removed. This is a huge eye-opener. Several
Web sites from major departments have video testimonies that are
incredibly impactful. Keep it “meat and potatoes,” or you will lose
your audience quickly. Finally, highlight and go over the policy and
procedures the department has adopted. Answer questions and ask
for any additional input to make the program better. On average, 50
percent of your audience will comply initially; 20 percent will not. It’s
the other 30 percent where you need to focus your attention.
Don’t forget about other areas within your department, such as training and arson investigators. Training provides an excellent opportunity
to begin the culture change on day one. Keep in mind that changing
culture and developing good habits do not happen overnight. They will
take time, be frustrating at times, and be a grind, but there will be feelings of success. Always remember: The effort and time your department
puts forth in creating this change in culture will affect members of your
department and their families for many years. There is nothing more
gratifying than serving those who risk so much to save others.
GREG HENDERSON is a captain in the Safety Division in the Dallas
(TX) Fire-Rescue Department.