Cleaning all PPE elements is the key to firefighter cancer risk reduction

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By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec (front center) as a member of the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire and EMS Department Recruit School #12 in July 1982.

The more I’ve learned about the increased risk of cancer from exposure to the toxic chemicals, chemical compounds, and carcinogens contained in structural fire smoke, the more scared I’ve become. And I’ve been retired for 12-plus years.

But we’re here to talk about the here and now, right? And the topic for this post is to help you and your fire department in improving your cancer risk reduction process through better handling and cleaning of all the elements of your structural firefighting ensemble, MKNA, PPE or turn out gear.


Excellent training video–Short and sweet!–produced by the Kirkland (Wash.) Fire Department.

By now you should be aware of the risks associated with wearing your PPE during firefighting operations and during removal of that gear during the initial risk reduction phase, FKA, gross decon. But the risks do not end there, and neither should you risk reduction measures.

For starters anyone handling any exposed PPE, including SCBA units, must wear rubber gloves and splash protection such as a full face shield (at a minimum wraparound eyewear), because once that gear becomes wet, it now presents a splash hazard as well as a contact hazard and an inhalation hazard from the off gassing.

As quickly as possible those hazards should be reduced by bagging the equipment in heavy gauge plastic bags for transport back to the fire station for laundering and cleaning.


Before engaging in any PPE cleaning and laundering, all personnel must shower and change into clean clothing. For the upcoming work of cleaning and laundry equipment and PPE, a good clothing option for personnel should be cotton/blend coveralls; coveralls can be shed after the work is done, saving a clean uniform or change of civilian clothes.

Prior to opening any bag containing PPE or SCBA you should protect yourself from the potential contact, inhalation, or absorption hazard by equipping yourself with the following PPE:

  • N-95 respirator or appropriate air purifying respirator (APR).
  • Full face shield. If full face shield is not available, wrap around safety eyewear or goggles are satisfactory options.
  • Tyvek coveralls or disposable liquid resistant gown or rubber lab apron; and
  • Rubber gloves.

Be aware that, depending on the ambient air temperature and humidity for the day, the inhalation hazard from off gassing from that bagged gear will have potentially increased; the interior compartment temperature where it was transported can act as an incubator to exacerbate that off gassing.

All PPE and SCBA that needs cleaning or laundering must be kept isolated to the area of the station where that work will take place. Also, anyone doing the work must stay in the same area until the tasks are completed. Treat the area and everything in it as a hazmat hot zone and act accordingly.

See Related: PPE cleaning: Avoid ‘downstream’ contamination

Using technology to reduce work and risk, specifically the use of specially designed washer/extractor machines, has greatly enhanced the safety, effectiveness, and efficacy of cleaning the coat, pants, and hoods of the protective ensemble. But until recently there was no such option for the cleaning of helmets boots gloves and other small equipment, for example, 4-gas monitors, hand lights, and hand tools.

The SOLO RESCUE Decon Cleaning Machine


Enter the SOLO RESCUE Decon Cleaning Machine from RESCUE INTELLITECH. The Solo Rescue Decon Cleaning Machine can do it all with an 8-minute cleaning cycle for SCBA and a 3-minute cleaning cycle for boots, helmets, gloves, and other small equipment. The SOLO RESCUE is the other half of a complete PPE cleaning and cancer risk reduction system, along with your department’s washer/extractors.

How can the SOLO RESCUE improve the cleaning and risk reduction process in your fire Department? Let us count the ways:

Interchangeable trays enable the SOLO RESCUE to accommodate SCBA, boots, helmets, gloves, and other small equipment
  1. Reduced the contact that your people have with dirty PPE and SCBA. Your personnel simply unbag the items, put the items into the SOLO RESCUE, and push the start button. The next time your personnel touch the items they’re clean.
  2. The cleaning technology of the SOLO RESCUE and the process align more closely with your department’s investment in PPE and SCBA. With an SCBA unit costing $5,000 USD or more, is it really in the best interest of you and your return on investment to clean it with soap and water and a brush? How clean is the last SCBA cleaned, compared to the first one that was cleaned, when there are eight or nine units needing cleaning?
  3. Reduces the amount of time committed to cleaning and risk reduction. While some personnel are taking care of coats and pants using the washer/extractor, others can be cleaning SCBA (8 minutes per cleaning cycle) and boots and gloves and helmets (3 minutes per cleaning cycle).
  4. Reduce costs for water and cleaning agents. Depending upon the degree of cleaning necessary, the water contained in the SOLO RESCUE’s 29-gallon reservoir can handle three to four cleaning cycles before it would need emptying (Big water savings!) And with automatic cleaning agent dispensing, you can be assured that the proper amount of agent is being dispensed for each cycle.
  5. And finally, as the washer/extractor machine has served to contain contaminants removed from PPE garments before sending those contaminants down the sanitary sewer, the SOLO RESCUE serves the same purpose. All contaminants remain in the machine until the contents of the reservoir are discharged down the drain.

The cleaning and risk reduction process required to return PPE and SCBA to service has become more important as we’ve learned more about the hazards firefighters are exposed to every time they engage in structural firefighting. The SOLO RESCUE Decon Washer from RESCUE INTELLITECH can help you and your people do that necessary work more safely, effectively, and efficiently.

For more information regarding the SOLO RESCUE Decon Cleaning Machine, contact the RESCUE Intellitech Team.