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Reducing airborne contaminant exposure with fireground tactics

Posted: Oct. 25, 2018

New study provides valuable insights into fireground exposure risks and ways to mitigate them

Many studies have identified cancer-causing risks that firefighters face through exposure to airborne contaminants and particulates on the fireground. A recent research project1 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), UL and the University of Illinois specifically evaluated firefighters’ level of exposure to pollutants at controlled residential fires based on both job assignment and suppression tactics.

Research results

  • Measurements of toxic air contaminants (polcyclic hydrocarbons, benzene) on the clothing of firefighters performing interior operations exceeded established exposure limits.
  • Fireground sampling of areas with heavy ground level smoke showed increased levels of airborne contaminants, especially downwind of the structure.
  • Attack and search firefighters faced the highest airborne exposure levels but were also wearing SCBA during response. (Note: Some airborne particles may still get past the turnout gear and be absorbed through the skin.)

Research takeaways

  • Fireground exposure to airborne contaminants will depend on the firefighters’ position relative to wind direction and the extent to which weather conditions dilute the smoke.
  • Hydrogen cyanide (HCN) is lighter than air so it tends to concentrate more in the upper smoke layer. Outside vent firefighters may encounter significant exposure to HCN and other contaminants when opening windows or ventilating roofs.
  • Firefighters should protect themselves by wearing SCBA during the entire response, including overhaul and outside ventilation activities.
  • Establish command posts upwind of the structure. If this isn’t possible, command personnel should wear respiratory protection.

Learn more about this research

This research article is available through our library by contacting FEMA-NETCLibrary@fema.dhs.gov.

1Fent, K., Evans, D., Babik, K., Striley, C., Bertke, S., Kerber, S., Smith, D., Horn, G. (2018). Airborne contaminants during controlled residential fires. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, 15(5), 399-412.

Further reading

A study published in September 2018 details findings about the danger of toxic exposure to firefighters upwind from a fire. The authors call this the “warm zone” and advise that all firefighters wear respiratory protection in this area, even those who may not be actively involved in suppression.

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.

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