Wildfires can cause long term damage to the lungs, and firefighters are at particular risk. A fire chief explains what safety precautions can be taken.
Public Information Officer, Los Angeles City Fire Department
What are some of the short and long term effects on the lungs of firefighters in the wake of events such as the California wildfires?
In the line of duty, firefighters may experience occupational exposure to gases, chemicals, particulate, and other substances with potentially damaging short and long term effects on the respiratory system. Previous studies performed during knock-down and overhaul phases show firefighters may incur exposure to toxicants and respiratory tract irritants including sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, phosgene, nitrogen oxides, aldehydes, and particulate. The combustion of building materials generates countless combustion products, with numerous new commercial compounds introduced annually.
Given the excessive exposure of firefighters to respiratory irritants and toxicants, it is essential that firefighters recognize the importance of breathing apparatus use, and take steps to minimize their risk of acute and chronic pulmonary disease.
It is the position of the IAFF Department of Health and Safety that there is an increased risk among firefighters of developing acute lung disease during the course of firefighting work. There may also be an increased risk of chronic lung disease in fire fighters, however, more research on chronic exposure is needed.
What can I do to protect myself?
There a number of steps which can be taken locally to reduce the rate of respiratory disorders.
Declining lung function may be detected with periodic and baseline pulmonary function testing (PFTs). This testing allows documentation for treatment and future claims, and ammunition if corrective action needs to be taken. However, pulmonary function testing is only a record of damage which has already occurred. Preventing pulmonary damage is the key.
It is important that every member of the fire service has an understanding of the respiratory risks of the fire environment, a goal which can only be accomplished through repeated training. People tend to follow rules and regulations more faithfully if they understand why they are adopted and how these procedures will conserve their health.
Scientific studies show that SCBA equipment is effective in minimizing respiratory exposure to toxicants, carcinogens, gases, and particulate during firefighting activity.
However, compliance may often be less than adequate. You can’t control what is generated by the fire, but you can control what you breathe.
What has the recovery process looked like for the LAFD?
Fortunately, we have not had any [worker’s compensation] claims to date associated with acute inhalation injuries stemming from our wildland firefighting operations.
Recovery operations include the medical surveillance program which provides first care assessment, and CO monitoring. We have operational safety briefings, reduce exposure by limiting shift length, strategically placing firefighters where exposure will be minimized, locating ICPs and incident base camps outside areas where smoke naturally collects, wet wipes to remove particulates periodically while on line, use P100/N95 masks available for less strenuous work, and PPEs w/SCBA on all firefighting apparatus. Post incident recovery includes comprehensive medicals and body scans available annually at no cost, decontamination of wildland PPEs, continuing education, and exposure reporting.
What are some precautionary measures that communities can be taking to protect their lungs during events such as these?
With the advent of longer, more intense wildfire seasons, cities and counties across the state have published a wealth of public health material in recent years addressing this issue. We all have seen numerous safety messages on a variety of media platforms. The awareness is there, it’s growing, and people are beginning to take advantage of the timely, safety sensitive material provided to them free of charge. It’s the first step we can take collectively towards increasing our community’s resiliency.
General wildfire smoke safety guidelines are to stay indoors if possible, keep windows and doors closed, check local public health alerts, and find an air conditioned placed. People with heart or lung disease, the elderly, and children should take extra precautions as they may be more likely to experience poor health if they breathe in wildfire smoke. If you have to be outdoors on a smoky day, cover your nose and mouth with a tight fitting N95 mask, which you can purchase at most hardware stores (when available again).