Firefighting is a life-threatening job and it’s not for everyone. Firefighters may be called to many different settings or environments. It’s impossible to predict all of the possible hazards a firefighter may encounter.
Firefighters deal with more hazards than the categories outlined below. For example, falling from heights due to collapsing buildings, interruption of a fresh air supply during rescue operations, injuries due to explosions, injuries from glass, metal, wood or liquids during a rescue and more.
Nevertheless, it may be useful to distinguish the two most general categories of danger as a basic step towards firefighting safety.
The two major categories of fire hazards are:
- Smoke & Toxic Atmosphere
- Fire & Heat
1) SMOKE & TOXIC ATMOSPHERE
Smoke inhalation is the primary cause of death in victims of indoor fires. Smoke kills by a combination of heat damage and poisoning from toxic chemicals in the smoke.
Smoke is becoming increasingly more dangerous due to the increased variety and amount of synthetic household materials that are contained in the smoke.
As a result, the damage caused by smoke can often exceed that caused by the actual heat of the fire.
Smoke from a typical house fire contains hundreds of different chemicals and fumes. Toxic smoke from vehicle fires, manufacturing facility fires, office building fires, airport fires and other special environments have their own hazardous chemicals within smoke that firefighters must contend.
Additional risks associated with smoke include the obscuring of vision, potentially causing a fall or disorientation, which can lead to becoming trapped in a fire and/or a structural collapse.
2) FIRE & HEAT
The most obvious risk associated with fire is the possibility of getting burned by direct contact. What may not be so obvious is that the immense heat generated by a fire can cause serious burns even from great distances (without physical contact). Depending on the heat of the fire, burns can occur in a fraction of a second.
More specifically, a number of serious heat-related risks, such as burns from hot gases, steam, and hot and/or toxic smoke are an ever-present danger.
Sufficient heat causes human flesh to burn as fuel, or even the water within a body to overheat, leading to potentially severe medical problems.
Furthermore, excessive heat can cause flammable liquids and various chemicals to explode, without direct contact with fire.
To reduce the risks of smoke, firefighters carry a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) to prevent smoke inhalation. These are not oxygen tanks, since oxygen is a powerful fire accelerant and would represent its own risk in the presence of fire. Instead, SCBA use compressed air in a similar manner to SCUBA diving gear.
A firefighter’s SCBA usually hold 30 to 45 minutes of air, depending on the size of the tank and the rate of consumption during strenuous activities.
Additionally, firefighters are equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE) that includes fire-resistant clothing and helmets that limit the transmission of heat towards the body. However no PPE, can completely protect a firefighter from the effects of all possible fire conditions.
While this gear helps to reduce the risks, firefighters are still exposed to smoke, toxic dust, fumes and radiation that each contribute to the reduction of a firefighters good health and increase the likely to develop cancer.
Modern firefighters (whether paid or volunteer) participate in ongoing training to become better prepared to fight fires safely. Through controlled burn situations, trainees and veteran firefighters learn what to expect and how to handle real world fire emergencies.