Comparison of Use, Storage, and Cleaning Practices for Personal Protective Equipment between Career and Volunteer Firefighters in Northwestern Kenkucky in the United States

By Hwang, Jooyeon; Taylor, Ritchie et al. | Journal of Environmental Health, December 2019 | Go to article overview

Comparison of Use, Storage, and Cleaning Practices for Personal Protective Equipment between Career and Volunteer Firefighters in Northwestern Kenkucky in the United States


Hwang, Jooyeon, Taylor, Ritchie, Macy, Gretchen, Cann, Charles, "Mac", Golla, Vijay, Journal of Environmental Health


Introduction

Research interest in the health of firefighters in the U.S. increased in the 1980s. Over the following decades, a series of investigations in the U.S. has examined the adverse acute and chronic health effects related to firefighter occupational exposures (Fent et al., 2018; Gold, Burgess, & Clougherty, 1978). Most of the studies on firefighter occupational exposures have focused on career firefighters in densely populated urban cities (Dahm, Bertke, Allee, & Daniels, 2015; Daniels et al., 2014, 2015; Fent et al., 2018; Sparer et al., 2017). In particular, there are few, if any, studies on occupational exposures that focus on firefighters in small rural fire departments in the U.S.

Most firefighters in small rural fire departments are volunteers (Easterling & Prince, 2007) and are more likely to be vulnerable to carcinogenic exposures (Hwang, Taylor, Cann, Golla, & Gilbert, 2019; Hwang, Taylor, Cann, Norris, & Golla, 2019). Some of the heightened vulnerability of volunteer firefighters to occupational exposures can be attributed to a lack of respiratory protection standards, as volunteer fighters are not subject to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (2011) standards that are in place for career firefighters. The carcinogenic toxin benzo[a]pyrene, for example, is associated with lung, bladder, and kidney cancers; diesel exhaust is associated with rectal cancer, lung cancer, and leukemia (International Agency for Research on Cancer, 2010, 2013).

In the U.S., 85.2% (N = 25,604) of all fire departments employ mostly or all volunteers, and 69.0% (N = 788,250) of all firefighters are volunteers (Haynes & Stein, 2017). In Kentucky specifically, 75.7% of firefighters across nearly 700 fire departments are volunteers. The national average is 70.9% (U.S. Fire Administration, 2018). This pattern of predominantly volunteer firefighters is commonly observed in the smaller rural communities in northwestern Kentucky.

Small rural fire departments do not have as high of a call volume as large urban fire departments or as large of a budget for employing career firefighters. Thus, volunteer firefighters are likely to be residents of the community who have committed to serve in an emergency, as needed in a part-time capacity or for a single shift, in addition to their separate primary job. Furthermore, volunteer firefighters in Kentucky do not receive direct financial benefits, although they can claim a $1,000 refundable income tax credit.

By contrast, career firefighters are full-time responders who are compensated accordingly. In terms of tasks, volunteer firefighters mainly perform response, training, and maintenance activities, whereas career firefighters do these tasks plus perform administrative and medical fitness activities, such as medical evaluation and respiratory protection programs (Easterling & Prince, 2007).

The occupational health risks faced by firefighters are exceptional. To manage these risks, firefighters depend heavily on personal protective equipment (PPE), including turnout gear (coats and pants), hoods, gloves, helmets, eye protection, masks, footwear, and self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA). Therefore, identifying existing PPE practices for maintaining, cleaning, and storing firefighter gear is essential.

In a recent study of firefighters in Kentucky, Lesniak (2017) examined how the use of some PPEs can affect their performance. The firefighters participating in that study, however, were from a large urban fire department staffed by career firefighters, a scenario that precludes a comparison of volunteer and career firefighters, which is the scope of this study. Essential to that comparison is an understanding of the use, storage, and cleaning of the PPE worn by career versus volunteer firefighters. We used a survey instrument to obtain a wider perspective of and additional insights into existing PPE practices in small rural fire departments in northwestern Kentucky (survey can be found at www. …

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