The importance of firefighter health has received increased media attention in recent times, and rightly so. Following Covid-19 more emphasis is now being placed on hygiene and disinfection, which I believe will be one positive outcome of this pandemic. 

A significant cultural change has been a long time coming to take us away from firefighters wearing dirty kit as a badge of honor that proves their hard work and value, to understanding that clean and well maintained kit supported by detailed and robust hygiene processes that mitigate every contact with contaminants are essential.  

Firefighters’ exposure to carcinogens

Prior to Covid-19, the media were also reporting more regularly on the very real issue of firefighters’ exposure to carcinogens, an issue when embedded in equipment and absorbed. 

Cancer has been highlighted in some scientific reports to be the leading cause of death among firefighters, with the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) reporting that cancer caused nearly two out of three (61%) firefighter line-of-duty deaths between 2002 and 2017. The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) also found that in the US, firefighters had a 14 percent higher chance of dying of cancer compared to the general population. The results of these reports need to be underpinned by robust medical research to reflect the landscape, culture, current standards and operational practices for Fire Services in the UK.   

Cancer caused nearly two out of three (61%) firefighter line-of-duty deaths between 2002 and 2017

While these shocking statistics are relatively well known, not enough has been done to force a change. Manufacturers of medical and safety technology products have a responsibility to innovate solutions that support change. To this end, Dräger’s Health for the Firefighter campaign complements our training programmes and communicates the importance of detailed hygiene processes; from the handling and storage of masks and breathing apparatus equipment through to the subsequent cleaning of the kit after an incident has occurred. Training is the first and crucial step in guiding a cultural shift, and ultimately protecting the health and well-being of our firefighters.  

Using technology, research and innovation

It’s important that training programmes reflect the fact that fire services are the experts – they have the experience and understand what solutions are practical. It is therefore our role to use technology, research and innovation to ensure we work together as partners with applied training helping to create a robust consistency in approach as well as providing a safe environment to train. 

Dräger’s training is typically split into three areas:  

  • Training systems - these encompass mobile or fixed training facilities that enable state-of-the-art training so firefighters can experience real fires or extrication scenarios in a safe environment including compartment fire behavior training (CFBT). At Dräger they include a vast portfolio of potential fire and rescue environments, including petrochemical plants, hospitals, schools, high-rise buildings, vehicles, aircraft and subway stations;
  • Technical training - providing comprehensive know-how on the maintenance and repair of equipment – from mechanical and electronic components through to cleaning and disinfection;  
  • Fitness training – providing equipment to help ensure that firefighters are prepared for the physical challenges that come with the job and can be tested and monitored to improve their safety. 

The science and behavior of a fire and its contaminants

Training has come a long way from when it centred simply around exposure to hot temperatures often referred to as ‘burn to learn’. It is now about much more than protecting a firefighter from becoming burnt, but rather teaching the science and behavior of a fire and its contaminants, not only to support fire and rescue operations, but also to protect the firefighter’s own health. 

While Covid-19 is driving improvements in this regard, what is more difficult is helping fire services to realize that technical training on the cleaning and hygiene processes related to kit is just as important to firefighter health.  

Consistent and robust hygiene processes are also about technology. While manual cleaning of equipment is still generally the norm, there are many fire services that are moving towards mechanical washing systems, which provide complete consistency in washing temperatures, the amount of detergent used, speed and temperature of drying – which can all work together to disinfect contaminants and to protect the longevity of the kit.  

Training and support around these systems encompasses the entire purchasing and use life cycle; from helping to build business cases for procurement and logistical installation support, to advice on the exact processes a firefighter should take when leaving a scene and returning to the station. Support also encompasses the ongoing maintenance of equipment and the quantity of stock required. 

An international look at hygiene and infection control

Consistent and robust hygiene processes are also about technology

Despite such advances, the UK is still behind other countries in terms of our hygiene and infection control practices. Netherlands and Sweden, for example, are two European countries leading the way in shifting the mindset and using mechanical washing equipment supported by improved logistics for managing and tracking PPE and RPE more widely. For these countries, stringent hygiene practices are commonplace and are not just about fighting cancer or the current pandemic, but also about protecting firefighters and support staff from more day-to-day illnesses such as flu, common colds, cold sores and other communicable illnesses.  

Within Dräger, my role includes advising on these best-practice examples and new equipment technologies – working with our UK-based manufacturing facility and R&D departments to ensure they are designed with the firefighter in mind, and working with Fire Services, Government and other key stakeholders to help drive improvements to further protect our crews. Having manufactured advanced technology solutions for the Fire Services for more than 115 years, Dräger has the experience and technological know-how to support this necessary change in how we think about equipment, its cleaning, and ultimately how to apply technology and training to make our firefighters safer. 

Share with LinkedIn Share with Twitter Share with Facebook Share with Facebook
Download PDF version Download PDF version

In case you missed it

What Impact Has COVID-19 Had On The Fire Industry?
What Impact Has COVID-19 Had On The Fire Industry?

The COVID-19 pandemic has had ramifications for almost every industry, some more than others. With the pandemic stretching well into a second year, the non-medical consequences continue, and many are wondering about which of the required changes might become permanent. As regards the fire sector, we asked our Expert Panel Roundtable: What impact has COVID-19 had on the fire industry?

Keeping The Fires Out And The Lights On
Keeping The Fires Out And The Lights On

The UK’s demand for sustainable heat and power sources is increasing rapidly. This is seeing a growing dependence on renewable energy sources for electricity, and, as we’re facing a landscape of constrained power generation, consistency of this power source is becoming a key concern. Fire is an evolving risk for power stations. It can cause prolonged outages, which are damaging to sites’ personnel, equipment, and fuels. However, these fires are very common. James Mountain, Sales, and Marketing Director, Fire Shield Systems, looks at the current system underlying fire safety for power stations, exploring why a new approach is needed.   Traditional Fire Safety guidance  Over the past ten years, The National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA 850 Recommended practice for electric generating plants and high voltage direct current converter stations has been seen as the exemplar internationally for fire safety at power generation sites. These recommendations sit alongside a complex mix of regulations managing the fire protection across sites that create power from combustible feedstocks. Those feedstocks can either be derived from organic sources, including wood and agriculture or refuse sources, including household waste. The exploration of alternative systems is limited, but different fuels and processes need different suppression, detection, and monitoring systems to remain effective. However, chapter nine of the guidance dedicates only four of its 70 pages to the fire risks specifically pertaining to the handling and storage of alternative fuels, a rising concern for the power generation industry. Practical experience of advising on the fire safety for sites handling these fuels has revealed a conflicting array of approaches to risk mitigation, many of which are guided by the owner, led by the insurance industry. For the insurance industry, the main concern is protecting fuels, assets, and equipment. However, insurers often rely on more traditional methods to offer that protection, such as sprinkler systems, despite these not always being suitable in protecting certain types of feedstocks. The exploration of alternative systems is limited, but different fuels and processes need different suppression, detection, and monitoring systems to remain effective. To better address, the growing challenges faced, best practice legislation and guidance for power generation sites needs to reflect real work scenarios, including the myriad incidents which have occurred throughout the past decade.   What are the risks When Dealing with alternative fuel?  When it comes to dealing with alternative fuels, storage, movement, processing, and transportation all present significant fire risks. These risks become more complex with alternative fuels compared with others as, to protect the site effectively, there’s a need to understand their unique properties, consistencies, ingress of hazardous materials, and their reactions on contact with water and foams. When it comes to dealing with alternative fuels, storage, movement, processing, and transportation all present significant fire risks The myriad risks, from carbon monoxide (CO) emissions to large explosions, are guided by an equally complicated set of fire safety guidance. Research into the safe handling and storage of these fuels, and the most suitable mitigation measures to offset the risks, is ongoing. Detecting and monitoring heat within alternative fuels when stored is also challenging, as the material is also an insulator. This means fire and heat are often difficult to identify in their early stages, prior to a blaze taking hold. Some types of alternative fuels are also prone to self-combustion if not monitored carefully. The risk of fires burning slowly within these materials is the topic of a major study from Emerging Risks from Smouldering Fires (EMRIS) between 2015 and 2020. The need for new best practice guidance in fire safety As methods for generating renewable power mature, and new technologies and research emerge, fire safety guidance needs to be updated to reflect this. This is not only a UK-wide challenge, but it’s also recognized across global and European standards. Regulations need to take into account a range of factors to ensure protection systems are effective in practice. The development of renewable power sources requires revision of fire safety guidance. Now, a decade on from when the NFPA 850 was first published, it’s time to revisit its guidance and focus on building a more resilient, fire-safe future for all of the UK’s 78 biomass and 48 waste to energy sites. This involves greater clarity pertaining to the specific risks associated with alternative fuels, such as waste and biomass-derived fuels. The approach needs to be comprehensive, looking at every aspect of designing, installing, and maintaining systems.While the power generation industry remains reliant on outdated and complex guidance, with conflicting approaches to best practice protection, the potential for systems to fail is clear. That robust approach relies on multiple stakeholders working together – including the regulators, government, academics, technology partners, and fire safety professionals. Collaboration is key to build long-term confidence in the safety of sustainable fuels in powering our homes, transport, and industries in the future.

Spot Fires Before They Start: Thermal Imaging For High-Risk Sites
Spot Fires Before They Start: Thermal Imaging For High-Risk Sites

Waste management sites are particularly vulnerable to fires, with hundreds reported every year, just in the UK. The materials stored in a waste heap make them particularly risky environments. ‘Hot spot’ fires, as they’re called, can be caused by chemical waste, flammable items, or the heat caused by the natural breakdown of organic materials.  A blaze can start quickly and without warning, building into a major issue that can threaten lives and livelihoods. And not only that - but in many cases, insurers now require sites to be putting additional updated fire prevention measures in place, in order to validate their existing policies. All this makes it more important than ever to have effective prevention and detection measures on-site, with the ability to extinguish fires swiftly should they develop. Preventing poor prevention Early detection is vital for preventing the dire consequences of a fire. The traditional approaches - manual inspection, gas detection, or basic thermal monitoring - all come with major limitations. Thermal camera prevention software can instantly detect when temperatures are outside of the normal range They all take time and, to be honest, they’re all pretty unreliable. Waste piles can often be many meters deep. When you smell the smoke or see the flames, it’s too late. The damage has already been done and by that stage, you’re long past prevention. Real prevention needs to start earlier, and deeper below the surface. It is said that necessity is the mother of all invention - and out of this need to keep sites safe comes high-resolution fire prevention thermal imaging. Thermal Cameras Thermal cameras from manufacturers such as FLIR, can constantly monitor temperatures across a site. They are highly sensitive to temperature, being accurate to within half a degree centigrade, and programmed to detect heat signatures deep below the surface. This type of prevention software can instantly detect when temperatures are outside of the normal range. A flame will develop at 122 degrees centigrade. If you can catch an elevated temperature and lower it before it reaches that stage, you can stop the fire before it even begins. Oscillating Water Cannons Should the temperature in any area rise enough to become a fire risk – typically 60 degrees centigrade or above – thermal imaging cameras can trigger an alert, informing the operator.  It can be combined with location monitoring software for fast identification of possible ‘hot spots’, and even connected to automated, oscillating water cannons which can locate and extinguish hot spots in seconds. The system will then activate a pair of automated, oscillating water cannons, spraying the affected area to reduce the temperature or extinguish the fire. Distinguish before you extinguish False alarms are a risk with thermal systems. The last thing you want is a sprinkler system going off because a camera detected the heat from a vehicle exhaust. The latest systems can be programmed to distinguish between acceptable heat signatures, such as vehicles, and genuine potential fire risks. On-site fire prevention can now be safer, more reliable, and more efficient, with fewer false alarms Solutions like this have been developed recently by UK machine vision integrator Bytronic, fire prevention imaging supplier Thermascan, and Swedish firm Termisk Systemteknik, using FLIR technology to create a reliable and automated solution to keep sites safe, with rapid detection at a temperature level. In one site, the water cannons were programmed to adjust water pressure and reach based on the location of the hot spot, before automatically deactivating once the temperature has cooled sufficiently. Meanwhile, the thermal cameras – which can detect fires even through thick smoke – monitor the progress of a fire beyond what’s visible with the naked eye. The future of fire prevention? For sites used to manual inspection and sprinkler systems, this technology could be a step-change. The old ways may have been partially effective, but were more likely to be overly sensitive and not targeted to the affected areas, taking more time and potentially causing water damage and pollution elsewhere. With newer automated, thermal imaging solutions, on-site fire prevention can now be safer, more reliable, and more efficient, with fewer false alarms. When hot spots occur, they can be swiftly extinguished with pinpoint accuracy, limiting water waste, property damage, and environmental pollution. It can mean the difference between a successful insurance payment or a significant financial hit, should the worst happen. But with the proper prevention, that worst situation may never occur.