Dawn Bolstad-Johnson - Mar 11, 2019

The Importance of Respiratory Protection at Every Fire and why FIT TESTING Matters.

The Alarm tones go off in the Fire Station about 2:45 pm – the voice says 3 and 1 dispatch (3 engines and 1 ladder) electrical fire in garden office complex. The firefighters head to the apparatus bay, jump in their turnout pants and boots that have been placed near the truck and head to the call lights and siren. When they arrive on scene, the initial report is that a construction company hit an electrical line nearby which resulted in a small explosion and a small fire in this garden office complex. The engineering system extinguished the fire as per design and fire code.

Firefighters are now making entry to the office building. They have their SCBA on their backs just in case they need them, but their regulators are not attached to their face pieces, they are dangling down on their chest. As they make entry, they report a light haze of smoke. A light haze of smoke is not a threat to firefighters especially if it has been reported that the fire is out. This may be less smoke than you would experience in an active bingo parlor.

They continue into the electrical room where all of the electrical panels are located for this office complex. They find evidence of where the panel arced and the source of the small explosion and small fire. The ceiling panels have been thrown about the dropped ceiling as a result of the small explosion. Fire is out. They look for hidden fire, hot embers, but nothing is found. The three crews (9 in total as the engineers of each of these crews are with their trucks) exit the structure and speak to the responsible party for the building. They release the building back to them, tell them to call the respective utility companies to check out the panels and then the firefighters return to their respective fire stations. The time is approximately 3:30 pm.

At about 9:00 pm the firefighters from all three crews begin experiencing symptoms of difficulty in breathing. They quickly discover that the other crews that responded to this fire are also experiencing the same adverse health symptoms. They all go to the hospital for breathing treatments and are all released within a few hours.

First thing the next morning, I get the call as the Fire Department Industrial Hygienist. I am asked to “tell us what was in the air to cause these symptoms”. I remember back to my fire overhaul study and the curiosity I had regarding what contaminant(s) could be riding on respirable size airborne particles to get into the lung. I had the particulates collected at the overhaul study further analyzed for vinyl chloride and we found small levels of chloride in that particulate matter. However, at the time, I did not know how to explain the findings, so I just remained silent.

Setting up a sampling plan in an hour for unknown contaminants is a challenge for any skilled industrial hygienist. Based on my working knowledge from the overhaul study, I focused on the soot. The fire was small it was extinguished quickly through the engineering controls of the system. I worked with the hazmat team and they made entry fully dressed out and collected wipe samples and took photos of the area. Lab analysis of these wipe samples revealed high levels of hydrochloric acid and cyanide salts especially on the area of origin of the fire. In my final report, through deductive reasoning, I suggested that the cause of the symptom of “difficulty breathing” was likely due to airborne particulate that was contaminated with airborne chloride and cyanide salts. When the particulate made it into the lung, the lung recognized the foreign body and went to work to digest it. In the digestive process of the carbon particulate, cyanide salts and chloride ions were released and caused irritation of the lung at the cellular level. I concluded my report by stating the obvious, if the firefighters had worn their respiratory protection this would have never happened.

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