There is mounting evidence that firefighters are more at risk of developing cancer as a result of their occupation. PPE manufacturers are constantly looking at new ways to help reduce this risk, as Roger Startin of Bristol Uniforms explains.
The long-term health risks associated with inhaling smoke are widely accepted across the industry, but there is now additional concern about the risks of absorbing carcinogenic substances through the skin. The Fire Brigade Union (FBU) has teamed up with researchers from the University of Central Lancashire to improve understanding and investigate this very issue.
Whilst research continues, early findings show that a firefighter’s risk of developing cancer is increased if dangerously high levels of harmful chemicals are not removed from protective gear. Contaminated PPE can slowly gas off Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) for a considerable time after an incident: long after the firefighter has taken off his or her breathing apparatus, and even after returning to the fire station. PAHs can also cross-transfer to other surfaces, potentially contaminating firefighting equipment, vehicles and kit rooms back at the station.
So important is this issue, the British Standards Institute (BSI) has worked with leading industry figures and recently published a standard (BS 8617) for cleaning, maintenance and repair of firefighter PPE. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has also just published a standard for cleaning, maintenance and repair of firefighter PPE (NFPA 1851:2020), which includes swatch testing by certified laboratories to ensure that cleaning processes are effective.
In addition, the FBU has taken steps to disseminate practical information and advice on how to reduce the threat of contaminants, such as using wet wipes to clean particularly vulnerable areas such as the face and neck immediately after an incident, showering and changing after removing PPE, and always ensuring PPE is properly cleaned and in good condition.
A recent report published by James Grove, Watch Commander at West Midlands Fire Service, also made several recommendations to prevent exposure to contaminants and cross contamination of fire appliances and fire stations, including using lighter-coloured PPE that shows up soot contamination and establishing robust procedures for handling contaminated gear.
West Midlands is just one of many FRSs that have signed up to the Collaborative PPE Framework and received brand new structural firefighting PPE from Bristol Uniforms in July 2019. As well as providing high quality protection from heat and flame, the new kit is gold in colour – a change from the old red and black – which will help to highlight areas of soot contamination.
All evidence points to the fact that cleaning PPE helps reduce the risk of contamination. Whilst once it was seen as a badge of honour to wear dirty kit, it is now frowned upon as the risks of wearing contaminated kit become more apparent.
At this year’s Emergency Services Show, we announced that we have become the UK distributor for innovative Solo Rescue® decontamination machines, which is hoped will address the problem and help further reduce the risk of long-term exposure to harmful contamination.
Solo Rescue was developed back in 2012 when Swedish manufacturer GRANULDISK was approached by a firefighter from Skellefteå. Skellefteå FRS was using one of its dishwashing machines to clean helmets and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) because it was concerned about exposure to toxic particles. Unbeknown to Skelleftea, it used an abrasive to remove food debris, which resulted in damaged equipment. The CEO of GRANULDISK, Peter Schön, explained the issue and realised that there was a need for a decontamination machine that would safely, but thoroughly, clean firefighter PPE. He set to work to try and come up with a solution and Solo Rescue® was born.
“Anything that helps FRSs undertake thorough cleaning of their PPE and reduce contamination and risk to firefighters’ health is welcomed”
Whilst in the UK, most FRSs use a laundry service for their clothing, it is not always easy to do the same for helmets and SCBA. This is because most firefighters get issued two sets of clothing, but only one helmet. In the case of SCBA, they are usually shared. This means they cannot be spared and sent off-site for cleaning in case a major incident occurs.
When talking to FRSs, it became increasingly clear to us that a solution was needed. As it stands, many FRSs clean SCBA in the fire station by hand, which is a difficult, lengthy process and can expose the firefighter undertaking the cleaning to further risk of contamination.
Solo Rescue® cleans boots, helmets, gloves and SCBA in a self-contained, sealed compartment which minimises manual contact with contaminated material. Kit can be cleaned immediately upon return to the fire station, with the machine successfully removing residues of combustion gases, soot particles and toxins in just a few minutes, and fits in a compact space of less than one metre square.
The durable stainless-steel machines have a swift cleaning cycle, meaning that up to 14 sets of SCBA can be decontaminated in just one hour, considerably improving the speed and efficiency of the cleaning process. Solo Rescue® decontamination machines are also simple to operate, with minimal servicing required.
Solo Rescue® conforms to the cleaning requirements of top SCBA brands including Dräger, MSA, Interspiro and SCOTT, and is sold across Europe and the US.
South East Skåne FRS in southern Sweden began using Solo Rescue® in early 2013. Crew Manager Dennis Nilsson explains the difference the machine has made to them: “We are in charge of saving lives, but we must also look after ourselves. We used to clean breathing apparatus by hand with a hose, brush and a drop of washing up liquid. Solo Rescue® changed all this. It is a robust and stable machine and cleaning gear has quickly become part of our daily routine.”
Andreas Svedlind from Sörmland Coast FRS in south east Sweden explains how it changed his working environment forever: “You used to clearly smell smoke when handling the equipment, no matter how meticulously it had been cleaned. Now the smell has gone and our equipment is noticeably cleaner. There is less ground-in dirt and all equipment is washed after each call.”
Robert Malmsten from RESCUE Intellitech, makers of Solo Rescue®, explains the technology: “The washer is up to ten times faster than washing by hand. It uses a mild detergent, approved by manufacturers, which together with warm water cleans kit at high pressure. The machine has been independently tested under controlled conditions. Tests show that the machine is more efficient at removing Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) than hand washing, and removes a high level of these contaminants.”
For those in the industry pushing for better cleaning standards, this is all good news. In the absence of an EU standard, expert Dave Matthews has been working closely with BSI on a new standard (BS 8617) for cleaning, maintenance and repair of firefighter PPE. In addition, he is also responsible for a new international standard (ISO 23616), which is more complex than BS 8617 and includes SCBA. He said: “Anything that helps FRSs undertake thorough cleaning of their PPE and reduce contamination and risk to firefighters’ health is welcomed. With tight budgets, it isn’t always possible for every firefighter to have multiple sets of accessories and breathing apparatus so controlled on-site cleaning is a positive step forward.”
The Solo Rescue® decontamination machine can be used alongside manufacturers’ cleaning and repair services. At Bristol, our drivers collect soiled or damaged PPE from FRSs around the country and are trained to handle kit carefully to prevent cross-contamination. The garments are transported to one of our two in-house Service Centres for thorough cleaning, inspection and repair, and are returned to the customer within seven days.
We continue to monitor closely the research being undertaken by the University of Central Lancashire. As an industry, we need to work together to tackle the issue of contamination head on. We will certainly continue to help protect and educate firefighters on the dangers of exposure and work closely with FRSs to ensure they have the necessary support and services.