Dirty bunker gear (once a badge of honor) has quickly become a sign of irresponsibility among the firehouse. Named ‘bunker gear’ for its history of being stored in the bunk room at fire stations, bunker gear is now stored far away from sleeping quarters to safeguard firefighters against the harmful carcinogens that live within the gear. It truly is amazing to think how much our behaviors have changed in regards to handling and storing bunker gear in such a short amount of time.
While many of us have changed our perspective on dirty gear it is important to understand why we’ve made these changes and why we should continue to properly clean and handle bunker gear.
Not properly caring for your bunker gear can lead to many issues ranging from a shortened lifespan of the equipment to actually absorbing more heat from a fire. But there are two risks that everyone should be aware of to ensure that they are taking their safety and the safety of others as a priority.
Toxic carcinogens found on gear and equipment
In recent years there have been extensive research studies identifying carcinogens present in PPE gear and their connection with cancer. Recently there has been discussion on the use of PFAS chemicals (known as forever chemicals) in the manufacturing of PPE gear and the long term impact these chemicals have on the health of a firefighter. Research has also found the presence of carcinogens on bunker gear that are directly from exposure to fires, these carcinogens remain on the gear and equipment post incident unless properly decontaminated.
It is interesting to think about the difference between fires today and fires 100 years ago. In the early 1900’s buildings were constructed with more organic building materials that when burnt did not give off as many harmful toxins. Today, homes are built with hundreds of synthetic building materials, from insulation used and materials like foams and plastics. When burnt, these materials give off toxic chemicals that then attach to the firefighter’s bunker gear as well as into the lungs of fire fighters. We should truly start looking at each fire we respond to as a micro chemical hazard and treat our firefighters and their gear as we would a hazardous scenario.
As firefighters we understand the risks we take while on the clock, but what many don’t understand is that the biggest threat we face is invisible and it is something that comes home with us every day. After each exposure to a fire, firefighters become coated in both visible and invisible chemicals. These same chemicals become lodged in our turnout gear and on our skin. When we bring our turnout gear home we risk contaminating other surfaces and people with these harmful chemicals.
Some things we recommend fire departments and firefighters to do to minimize exposure and cross contamination of carcinogens are as follows:
- Do not bring bunker gear home
- Do not workout in bunker gear
- Do not take family photos or newborn photos with bunker gear
- Manage bunker gear with gloves at all times
- Clean all exposed skin before leaving the station
- Clean bunker gear after every major exposure
- Follow NFPA 1851 cleaning guidelines
The San Francisco Fire Department created a great video to explain the impact that cross contamination can have after a fire. Check out the video below to see just how much one person can spread these harmful chemicals.