A new type of hazmat incident

CarolinaFireJournal - Jason Krusen
Jason Krusen
10/14/2010 -

Imagine the typical structure fire, and the various functions to be performed on the scene; fire attack, search, ventilation, water supply, overhaul, rapid intervention team (RIT), command, safety, etc. An important function commonly left off this list is air monitoring. Every structure fire responded to is essentially a hazardous materials incident. OSHA defines a hazardous substance as an “exposure which results or may result in adverse effects on the health or safety of employees.” The toxic smoke generated from a structure fire definitely satisfies the criteria for a hazardous substance.


This does not mean the fire service should treat a structure fire as a hazardous materials incident in the truest sense — by filling out a site safety plan, taking pre-entry vital, and performing a safety briefing prior to making an attack — but they should act safely considering all hazards. One of the main hazards is that of the smoke being produced and is often never monitored. Although many of the safety measures are typically implemented such as; firefighter accountability, and utilizing two-in/two-out we must try to cover them all.

Structure fires need to be looked at differently. While the hazards of fire smoke have been known for decades, the true toxicity is now being examined more closely. The synergistic effects of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide alone are enough to cause concern. We now know that these two products of combustion work together effectively to essentially shut down the respiratory system. The fire service needs to acknowledge this and no longer accept smoke inhalation as a diagnosis or cause of death.

Many of these injuries and deaths can be prevented by properly utilizing PPE. The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) is often deficient, especially after the fire is placed under control. Removal of PPE, especially SCBA, needs to be supported with the use of air monitoring to ensure a safe atmosphere. Before the decision is made to remove SCBA, it is imperative that the atmosphere be monitored.

Michael Callan stated in his keynote speech at the 2010 IAFC Haz-Mat Conference, “Safety is always a part of haz-mat. Haz-Mat Technicians were the first people to understand safety in that the incident was safety oriented, not mission oriented.” Firefighters typically gauge a fire by the property lost or saved, and if someone gets injured along the way the attitude is; it is a dangerous job and people are going to get hurt.

The fire service accepts headaches, exhaustion, and fatigue as a part of doing business. How many times has it been heard around the station following a fire when someone complains of a headache, “you’ll be OK; you just got a little too much carbon monoxide.” When did it become acceptable for us to be exposed to a harmful product? Would we say the same thing following a hazmat incident, or would we seek medical attention for our brother and sister firefighters? More importantly, when are we going to stop allowing this to happen?

The fire service must tap into this resource and utilize this specially trained group of individuals to provide a service on the fire ground. Does a structure fire warrant a full haz-mat response? No. Can the Incident Commander utilize those individuals to monitor the atmosphere prior to removing SCBA? Yes. The fire service needs to shift its priorities to consider firefighter safety first and adopt a hazmat point of view.

Smoke, no matter what type, is likely to have carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide and a myriad of other by-products of combustion. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommended exposure limit (REL) for carbon monoxide is 35 parts per million (ppm) and five ppm (4.7) for hydrogen cyanide. During an eight month study conducted by the Columbia Fire Department, these levels were well exceeding at nearly every call from a pot on the stove to a working structure fire.

There are several issues that need to be considered on the fire ground that can be addressed utilizing the hazmat point of view. PPE is essential until a safe atmosphere can be determined. Responders are not permitted to operate near a leaking vessel until the atmosphere is monitored, so why should a fire scene be any different. Surprisingly, it is not uncommon to see firefighters operating at a pot on stove, or during overhaul without wearing SCBA.

The use of isolation zones are not normally used on the fire ground. Firefighters often stage in the front yard, and stand in the lingering smoke. RIT personnel and even the command post are examples of operating too close to the incident. If the smoke were a green cloud, firefighters would think differently, but because it is just smoke, somehow it is acceptable. The Columbia Fire Department (SC) utilizes single sensor HCN meters throughout the department and it is not unlikely to find elevated levels well above the REL of HCN outside the structure.

While crews are operating inside the structure, have a meter in operation at the command post for the Incident Commander’s well being. Once the fire is under control and personnel request to remove SCBA, the meter can be reassigned. Incident Commanders will quickly learn they are positioning too close to the incident.

Apparatus placement should take into consideration the wind if possible. Apparatus operators are use to leaving the front of the building open for the ladder, and pull past the structure to give the officer a three sided view. If the smoke is lying down in front of the structure, stopping short and leaving the pump operator up wind may be the safest choice. The officer should perform a complete walk around prior to entering the structure anyway. This is especially true on large multiple alarm fires that will likely last an extended period of time. While personnel are likely to be utilizing respiratory protection, the pump operator, and firefighter operating on the turn table will be subjected to the smoke should it be downwind.

The placement of the rehab area needs to be considered so that it is in close proximity to the scene yet not in the smoke. Dedicated rehab units, or at least the needed supplies being carried on existing apparatus, are becoming more common. It is important that the personnel tasked with this assignment are familiar with NFPA 1584: Standard on the Rehabilitation Process for Members During Emergency Operations and Training Exercises, 2008 Edition. Within this standard it states that the site should be a sufficient distance from the effects of the operation.

Air monitoring is a vital operation and is seldom performed on the fire scene. The fire service has long known about the effects of carbon monoxide on the fire scene, yet many departments are failing to monitor for carbon monoxide. With the recent findings on hydrogen cyanide and the impacts on the body, it is even more important responders monitor for both these products. Single sensor and combination meters can be used quite easily to accomplish this task. Meters can be strategically placed in active areas and on apparatus that are likely to respond on most fires, i.e. rescues and ladders.

The use of decontamination is even being explored on the fire ground. There are definitely pros and cons to this discussion. It has been found that turn out gear continues to off gas well after leaving a structure fire. By performing decon on the gear, those products are removed, but additional hazards are created, such as steam burns, should the firefighter respond to a second fire. Dry decon is also an option, although a second set of gear is the easiest, yet most costly solution.

Departments must familiarize themselves with the recommendations of the gear manufacturer on the proper cleaning process as well as NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting.

Once the scene is under control and overhaul is complete responders must realize that the structure isn’t necessarily safe. Fire investigators and residents will be entering the structure and their safety and well-being must be considered before allowing them into the structure. The fire investigators may have a respirator, but most often they will enter the structure in their normal street closes with perhaps a pair of boots. Their investigations can last 20-30 minutes and if levels are high enough this can be extremely dangerous. The occupants will either have their residence turned back over to them, or at the very minimum be allowed to gather their belongings. Instead of sending in a fire department representative with the occupant to merely ensure the do not slip and fall, have them take a meter as they go.

By utilizing a hazmat perspective and hazmat trained personnel on scene, a structure fire can become a safer place. These are not changes that will take place overnight, and will require constant reminders by everyone on the scene. With the addition of safer staging areas, air monitoring, and PPE decon, responders will limit their exposure to the harmful products of combustion. To learn more about fire smoke, hydrogen cyanide, and ways to prevent and treat smoke exposures visit www.FireSmoke.org.



Krusen is a captain on Haz-Mat 1 with the Columbia Fire Dept., with over 14 years of experience. He is on the Board of Directors for the Cyanide Poison Treatment Coalition. He is a planning manager with State Urban Search and Rescue Team, SC-TF1, a Logistics Manager for the Type II Collapse Search and Rescue Regional Response in Columbia, and a Planning Manager for the Midlands Region IMT. Krusen is also the Project Manager and Instructor for E-Med Training Services, LLC.

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