Fire District pioneers life-saving monitorsThe Cloquet Area Fire District (CAFD) now has a set of devices – each of them not much bigger than the palm of your hand – that could one day save the lives of firefighters.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
The Cloquet Area Fire District (CAFD) now has a set of devices – each of them not much bigger than the palm of your hand – that could one day save the lives of firefighters. The devices test for toxic levels of carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen cyanide (HCN) in burned structures after the fire has been put out and firefighters are conducting overhaul procedures.
“It’s been practice for us, after the fire is out and we’re going in to mop up, look for hotspots and pull the ceiling down, to take our masks off and go without our self-contained breathing apparatus – our mask and tank combinations – that we wear into the fire,” said Brian Roth, CAFD fire equipment operator. “The air is perfectly clear by then, you aren’t breathing as much smoke and it doesn’t seem as if there’s a big problem.”
Recent research, however, would suggest otherwise.
Six months ago CAFD Captain Chad Vermeesch indicated that more and more large city fire departments are subscribing to the theory that HCN is an exposure threat to firefighters.
“We all know about carbon monoxide and how deadly it can be,” Roth said. “Hydrogen cyanide is 35 times more deadly.”
Roth started doing research to educate himself about the matter and came across some very credible research that indicated there’s a very high degree of suspicion that many of the firefighter line-of-duty cardiac arrests on the scene are thought to be due, in fact, to HCN and CO exposure.
What is thought to be happening is that lethal levels of those gasses often haven’t decreased at that point and there’s still off-gassing occurring from the burnt components – plastic, wool and all of the things that contribute to HCN.
“Fire departments have been having personnel drop at fire scenes for a long time without understanding just why,” said Roth. “Over just the past couple of years, there’s been some testing done that has found high levels of HCN in fire personnel after firefighting.”
The combination of CO and HCN can be particularly deadly, Roth said, because while CO displaces the oxygen from binding to the red blood cells, impairing the ability to transport the respirated oxygen to the cells, HCN affects the cellular respiration.
“We could do CPR on a guy exposed to HCN until the cows come home but it wouldn’t do any good until you get those cells to be able to utilize the oxygen,” said Roth. “You could blow oxygen in but we couldn’t actively resuscitate him until that happens.”
Roth said the best way to avoid this scenario is protection. Over the last couple of years, Roth has worked at building the components for a program to keep firefighters from accidental exposure to lethal gases. He applied for a grant from Enbridge that allowed the district to purchase a number of four-gas monitors that detect CO, oxygen, explosive gasses and hydrogen sulfide and, most recently, an HCN monitor as well. With those in place, the department has a new policy that states a firefighter cannot remove his or her self-contained breathing apparatus until the monitors show the levels of those gasses are down to a level that has been shown to be safe.
At Monday night’s house fire in Cloquet’s Sunnyside area, Safety Officer Ken Klatte went into the house with the monitors after the fire was out, checked to make sure the readings were at a safe level and then gave the firefighters the go-ahead to take off their masks and tanks and proceed with overhaul, continuing to monitor as the work went along.
Roth said the district is the only one in northern Minnesota and possibly the entire state to utilize both the the CO and HCN monitors at this point.
“I think the tie-in for us is that we’re medics, so we understand the physiology of what’s going on,” said Roth.