Firefighter decon challenges: knowledge versus practice

Posted: Feb. 7, 2019

firefighters removing bunker gear

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 request access to this research study by contacting the library at FEMA-NETCLibrary@fema.dhs.gov.


This summary is for informational purposes only. More +
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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