Which gases present the most danger and where are they?
1. Carbon Monoxide is probably the gas we have the longest history of understanding yet we’re still learning how dangerous it really is;
- CO poisoning can present with flu like symptoms — or no symptoms at all.1
- Even mild CO poisoning causes mental confusion which can lead to poor decision making.2
- Mild CO poisoning robs the heart and brain of oxygen — nearly 50 percent of U.S. firefighter’s line of duty death is attributed to heart disease or stroke.3 That’s why NFPA 1584 rehab standards support the use of CO testing.2 It’s also why so many U.S. departments now carry CO detection into every “first in” response, EMS, overhaul and fire investigation.
2. There are many dangerous gases that can be present in, around and after a fire. In addition to CO and Cyanides, you can find sulfur Dioxide, Oxides of Nitrogen, Hydrogen Chloride, Hydrogen Sulfide, Aldehydes, Benzene, phosgene and soot.4
- Are they dangerous? Several are known carcinogens. Phosgene has been used as a chemical warfare agent. All, in sufficient quantities can cause illness, even death. 4
3. EMS encounters with CO and CO poisoning in patients are a bigger problem than we’ve recognized.
- Just one severe CO poisoning almost doubles the risk of premature death.5
- Repeated exposure to CO may cause long term heart and brain damage. 5
- The American Medical Association thinks we are misdiagnosing by not recognizing as many as 100,000 cases of CO poisoning in patients every year in the U.S. alone.6
4. Post fire can present many dangers as well.
- The common protocol of once through with a monitor to clear the site can miss pockets of dangerous gas.
- Some gases are released by heat alone — no smoke.7
- Many of the gases we should be concerned with are “silent,” colorless, odorless and tasteless.4
5. Rehab, fire command, pump operators can be exposed as well.
- “We have gotten no readings on site and 50 feet away we found dangerous gas — and there was no smoke.”7
Carrying dangerous gas monitors is the only way to avoid those dangers. Newer technology and innovative applications make it possible to do so while spending less money.
Let’s start with an example; we’ll create a moderate sized city that has two fire stations, six engines, two command vehicles and four ambulances to use for our example. We’ll assume it has historically carried a standard four-gas monitor (CO, LEL’s, H2s and O2) in each engine with maintenance and support cost on the average of $300 to $400 per year for each monitor.
Let’s also assume a common protocol has been used. The monitors from the engines were carried in when someone suspected they were needed or maybe dispatch had advised of a risk. Possibly it was used for overhaul and maybe EMS if they suspected CO. The weakness in each of these instances is that it counts on training and observation to know when to use the monitor and many of the gases we need to worry about are not visible — we can’t see, smell or touch them — and they aren’t always where we expect them to be.
In our new approach, let’s equip one engine in each station with a four gas monitor. We’ll place CO and LEL monitors in each of the other engines and add them to the two command vehicles since Carbon Monoxide and explosive hydrocarbon gases (gasoline, propane, natural gas, methane, hydrogen, acetylene, benzene, toluene, etc.) are the most likely of the gases we’ll encounter if we’re not in an actual confined space environment. We’ll also put CO monitors in each ambulance to passively screen for CO exposure and help diagnose CO poisoning on every EMS response.
Our new protocol will be to carry CO detection into every EMS response. We’ll be taking CO and LEL detection into every other operation, including overhaul and fire investigation. We’ll count on a core team of trained and well equipped people to respond if entry into a confined space is required or one of our detectors alarms. We’ll no longer be depending on training that can do little more than better prepare us to guess when to look for gases we can’t see, smell or touch to be safe.
Will we be safer? EMS will no longer be exposed to CO they didn’t know was there — and they’ll be delivering better service since they’ll not ever miss CO poisoning in a patient. CO and explosive hydro carbon gases are the majority of the gases that present danger in emergency response. We’ll now be carrying a device that can “see” them into every call. If we are actively looking for CO and LELs in every post fire operation, we are very likely to avoid the other dangerous gases that also might be there. CO is one of the more prevalent and cohesive gases, thus it is typically there if any of the others are and is usually one of the last to dissipate. As a bonus, there will now be two command vehicles that can be providing detection on every response and to rapidly respond to calls from CO alarms at homes or other buildings — no need to send an entire engine and crew. Again, offering the ability to be more efficient and deliver better service.
Can using more monitors really cost less? Let’s do the math (if you don’t want the details — skip to the red numbers). We added two CO monitors at a cost of $200 to $300 each depending on features and six CO and LEL monitors at about $500 each. We’ll keep two of the old four gas monitors. So we’ve spent around $3600. If we buy solid state detection equipment that doesn’t require bump testing support or calibration equipment we’ve spent all we need to spend. We’re saving $300 to $400 per year on the maintenance expense of four of the old four gas monitors so we have $1200 to $1600 per year to work with. If we buy solid state equipment that has a five year sensor life warranty we will have eliminated $6,000 to $8,000 in maintenance expense for those old monitors we’ve replaced over those five years. Our savings = $2400 to $4400.
It gets even better when we replace the sensors in those solid state devices for $150 and get another five years of warranted sensor life. That’s a very nice bottom line savings — more than enough to equip the core response teams with more sophisticated equipment and still bring some to the bottom line.
It’s our responsibility to protect those who are on call to respond when we need them. As our knowledge grows, better opportunities are created for us to do that. New technologies can allow us to reduce our costs and our training burden as well. A protocol like our scenario here will allow front line defenders to be safer by carrying equipment that can warn them when they need more support. A small group of responders who are interested in that work are likely to remain well trained and the small group can be well equipped.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with several U.S. departments that have introduced protocols like that I’ve described here and many of them have experienced savings greater than I’ve used in this example while enhancing the safety of their people significantly. I’m borrowing from their expertise to encourage you to view the safety of your people in a creative and knowledgeable way. Your people can very likely be safer — and you can probably spend less while creating that environment for them.
- Hampson NB et al. American Journal of Emergency Medicine. 26:665-669, 2008
- NFPA 1584: Standards on the Rehabilitation Process for Members During Emergency Operations and Training Exercises. Annex A section A.6.2.4(1)
- Bledsoe BE. Fire Rescue Magazine. September 2005
- Paul Nelson. WSAFC Magazine. Spring 2013
- Bledsoe BE. Journal of Emergency Medical Services. 32:54-59, 2007
- Web Site www.cosafety.com , 2009
- Web Site www.firesmoke.org class preview video. May 2013