The clean solution

Fire service: operational hygiene (2/3)

Avoiding contamination during call-outs

What happens on a call-out when firefighters are exposed to carcinogens? Can they be 100% confident in the protection provided by their safety gear? How can each firefighter help minimise their own contamination levels?

What happens when firefighters are exposed to carcinogens?

When fighting a fire, the heat can raise firefighters' body temperature by 1–2 degrees. Their pores therefore open to help cool them down. Toxic substances like soot, benzene and polycyclic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can enter the body by this route.

At the scene of a fire, the risk of absorbing toxic substances through the skin is 400x higher than elsewhere. That is why it is important for firefighters to carefully take the correct actions when removing their PPE after a fire.

Even after the fire, whether the scene is fresh or cold, the right protective clothing and respiratory protection is needed. Toxic substances, dust and soot can escape into the surrounding air and be breathed in. The aim must always be to keep exposure to a minimum.

Wear the right PPE

Wear the right personal protective equipment for the situation.

How can exposure be minimised?

1. Information about the fire and situation

The incident commander must assess the situation and give the crew the right instructions – including for their own safety. What toxins are present? What toxins can the fire generate? And what toxins should you expect to find at a cold fire scene? From which direction is the wind blowing? From which direction should the scene be approached?

Selecting the strategy for the incident

The strategy for the incident has to be chosen according to the conditions at the scene.

2. Follow hygiene protocols at all times

Firefighters choose the right clothing for the incident depending on the fire, then they use the hygiene design and tested hygiene protocols during and after the call-out. The crew transport compartment in the fire engine must be closed with the ventilation turned off during an incident.  And it is not time to forget about safety once the fire is out.

Depending on the risk level, the correct PPE for a fresh or cold fire scene must be selected. That means protective clothing, disposable suits, respiratory protection using supplied or atmospheric air.

Fire fighters should have a quick wash and get changed on site to minimise toxic substances being carried from the scene to other places. Their clothing, such as boots, coats and trousers, should get a quick clean, too.

Preliminary wash on site

This preliminary wash of the crew and their gear must take place on site immediately after the incident.

Food and drink cannot be consumed until hands and face have been washed and protective gear has been switched out.

In the first part of our trilogy on operational hygiene, we looked at protocols for before a call-out. In the second, we were interested in important factors for during the call-out. Our final article in the series will examine how to avoid contamination even after the call-out. Find out more about the increased cancer risk faced by firefighters, in our article: Cancer in firefighters. For questions or comments, please contact us at