Official websites use .gov

A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock () or https:// means you've safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Current Events and Issues

Firefighter decon challenges: knowledge versus practice

Posted: Feb. 7, 2019

The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) is funding research to find ways to significantly reduce the cost of retrofitting existing homes with lifesaving residential fire sprinkler systems. We hope to reduce both the amount of water needed and the complexity of installing sprinklers, while providing time for occupants to escape a fire in their home.

Understanding firefighter beliefs and behaviors related to cleaning and decontaminating bunker gear after a fire is an essential first step in devising an effective health intervention to reduce risks.

Firefighters face substantial risks of exposure to carcinogens and other toxins. These exposure risks result most often from dermal absorption during a fire or inhalation of off-gassing particles (volatile organic compounds and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) from contaminated bunker gear during removal.

A recent study1 examined firefighter attitudes, norms and perceived barriers to field decontamination processes. Data for the study was collected from a survey of 482 firefighters from four South Florida fire departments.

Study results

  • Firefighter attitudes were overwhelmingly favorable towards cleaning gear. However, actual firefighter decontamination and cleaning behaviors did not follow at the same level. We also see this divergence of attitude and behavior in other areas of health concern, such as public attitudes and behaviors related to organ donation.
  • Firefighters only showered about 64 percent of the time within an hour. Ten percent reported they never or only rarely showered immediately after a fire.
  • Other recommended decontamination steps occurred only “sometimes” or even less frequently.
  • Routine cleaning of bunker gear back at the station should be a standard practice but only 15 percent of firefighters reported doing this regularly.
  • Hood swap and field decontamination practices were still considered a “new” practice, with barriers still blocking wide adoption.
  • Firefighters reported high levels of concern about the time it took to clean gear and the negative impact of having wet gear on job performance.
  • Peer-influence may still also adversely impact individual post-fire cleaning behavior.

Key takeaway

Firefighters fully recognize the benefits of post-fire cleaning and decontamination. The challenge, though, lies in getting them to act on this knowledge. A successful behavioral health intervention for firefighter decontamination needs to overcome two major potential challenges.

  1. The perceived norm among a group of peers.
  2. The perceived job or organizational barriers that inhibit the adoption of acknowledged decontamination practices.

In a future article, we’ll look at a study that addressed these challenges with messaging based on behavioral change theory.

1Harrison, T.R., Wendorf Muhamad, J. Yang, F., Morgan, S.E., & Talavera, E., Caban-Martinez, A., & Kobetz, N. (2018). Firefighter attitudes, norms, beliefs, barriers, and behaviors toward post-fire decontamination processes in an era of increased cancer risk. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, 15(4), 279-284. DOI: 10.1080/15459624.2017.1416389

Learn more about this research

Summary information for this article was provided by the NETC Library. You can find this article in our library.

This summary is for informational purposes only. As such, the content does not reflect any official positions, policies, or guidelines on behalf of the sender, the U.S. Fire Administration, FEMA, DHS, nor any other federal agencies, departments or contracting entities. Similarly, this summary does not represent in any manner an official endorsement or relationship to any private or public companies, organizations/associations, or any authors or individuals cited or websites associated within the article.

Explore more articles:

  • Filter:

Featured articles

Current Issues
photo of a man and a woman staring looking at their destroyed home
Current Issues
photo of a woman and man preparing a meal
Current Issues
storm clouds with houses in the foreground
Current Issues
pictograph illustrations
Coffee Break
community members meeting about wildfire projects
Coffee Break
firefighters talking
Current Issues
hoarded items in a home
Coffee Break
firefighters on hose line
Current Issues
child sleeping with mother in background
Current Issues
home boarded up with clear board
Current Issues
fire station
Coffee Break
firefighter using a computer
Coffee Break
binary data with a question mark
Coffee Break
table made up of puzzle pieces
Coffee Break
Plato
Coffee Break
helicopter dropping water on a fire
Coffee Break
meeting of public policy makers
Coffee Break
firefighter addressing meeting