The clean solution

Fire service: operational hygiene (1/3)

Avoiding contamination before, during and after call-outs

The aim of good operational hygiene is to limit firefighters' exposure to toxic substances to a minimum so that their bodies do not absorb them, or at least as little as possible. Hygiene design and precautionary measures worked into the building, applied by staff or assisted by technology are all a part of how this is achieved. And everyone needs to contribute. It is important, here, to understand operational hygiene as a holistic process. We have three articles on this topic to explain how this can work.

How are firefighters exposed to carcinogens? Whether it is a forest fire, house fire, bin fire, barn fire or garage fire – smoke always contains toxic substances. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are created during incomplete combustion and can cause cancer in humans. They can be found in their gas forms in hot smoke, condensed or bonded to objects. All of these forms are present at the scene of a fire.

Developing awareness

An awareness of the danger of combustion residues is an important factor in successful operational hygiene.

Construction materials like asbestos and mineral rock wool pose an additional threat to firefighters. Toxic substances can enter the body via the airways, the skin or food. So how can firefighters ensure that their bodies absorb as few toxic substances as possible?

The basic rule is: ‘Enter an operation healthy and leave it healthy.’ To do this, certain actions have to be taken before the operation. This is where it is helpful to have a hygiene design. A design that accounts for the realities of your fire station and that is taught to everyone can make a key contribution to your colleagues' health.

Implementing precautionary measures

The leadership must implement precautionary measures.

What must hygiene design include for fire services?

  1. Organisational and structural separation of clean and dirty areas at the fire station
  2. Handling of vehicles and equipment like PPE and respiratory protective equipment
  3. Cleaning and disinfection processes for PPE and other equipment
  4. Documentation of contamination
  5. Quality control on actions taken

Everyone must be familiar with the actions to be taken as part of the hygiene design. If higher ranking firefighters lead by example, the rest of the crew will accept the design more quickly, too.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are created during incomplete combustion and can cause cancer in humans.

How toxic substances enter the human body

It is not only the site of combustion itself that harbours toxic substances. Back at the fire station, running motors can endanger firefighters' health. Diesel fumes are also carcinogenic. They can be removed from the appliance room using separation systems.

The IARC, part of the WHO, has classified diesel fumes as carcinogenic to humans.

In part 2 of our series on ‘Operational hygiene’, we will be talking about how to avoid contamination on call-outs. In the final part, we will explain how to avoid contamination after a  call-out. On this page, you will find firefighters' thoughts on the elevated cancer risk they face in their work. Do you have questions? Write to us at