More Than Just Flames: The Dangers of Firefighting

Working as a firefighter is a lot like joining the military forces. One’s entry into this profession is like an oath to lay down their life for the greater good. This is something we do see in practice – firefighters pay a tremendous price for performing their duty faithfully. 

According to the US Fire Administration, there have already been 22 firefighter fatalities in 2024. Every year, hundreds of firefighters lose their lives on the line or as a result of occupational hazards. 

No wonder this profession is considered to be among the most dangerous in the world. The dangers of firefighting are not limited to the flames and the heat generated at the scene. 

In this article, we will discuss different firefighting hazards and ways for firefighters to stay safe. 

What Are the Common Firefighting Hazards (Other Than the Fire)?

In most cases, fires burn at temperatures of 2000° F or above. One can only imagine what the scene of structural firefighting would be like. There are plenty of cases where firefighters developed third-degree burns and succumbed to their injuries whilst saving lives. 

This is the most common firefighting hazard that comes to mind. Additionally, these professionals suffer the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. This toxic gas is released in most fire smoke. When inhaled in large volumes, the same can deprive the vital organs of oxygen. 

The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are a loss of consciousness and severe headaches. However, it may soon turn into a life-threatening situation with the firefighter losing their lives due to oxygen depletion. 

Other than that, some deadly hazards may have a long-term impact on health first. One example would be cancers caused due to Class B firefighting foam. Also known as Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF), this firefighting foam has been criticized for causing lifelong injuries. 

As per TruLaw, the most common cancers associated with AFFF are that of the kidneys, bladder, and testicles. It’s said to be caused due to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) used to prepare AFFF. These chemicals are a proven human carcinogen. 

Injured firefighters have filed an AFFF lawsuit against PFAS manufacturers like 3M and DuPont. Currently, over 9,000 cases are awaiting Bellwether trials for fair payouts. The litigation will likely be resolved by the end of next year. 

How Can Firefighters Stay Safe from Said Hazards?

Now that we’ve discussed the most common firefighting hazards, let’s talk about some ways firefighters can stay safe. Though these may not eliminate fatalities, they can certainly help keep the numbers low. 

Having the Right Equipment 

Before every rescue mission, firefighters must thoroughly check whether they are equipped with all the necessary equipment for the task. These include personal protective equipment (PPE) or turnout gear that protects against fire and smoke. 

Then, they must have adequate hose reels, fire extinguishers, sprinklers, ladders, and alarm systems. Without the right equipment, firefighters not only put their safety at risk but also those they’re setting out to rescue. 

Leveraging the Help of Technologies 

Technology has come a long way in supporting firefighters. One example would be robots like drones that can enhance situational awareness by highlighting hotspots and maneuvering in low-light conditions. 

In fact, it was drones that made the firefighting rescue mission of Notre Dame Cathedral successful in 2019. Another upcoming safety net would be the non-toxic synthetic fluorine-free firefighting foam. It would be as effective as legacy AFFF but would not have any harmful chemicals (PFAS). 

Lastly, all firefighters are now required to carry thermal imaging cameras (instead of just the Chief). This will include benefits like easy identification of hotspots, the ability to monitor the fire’s spread, early detection of fires, and better visibility through smoke. 

Following the Necessary Protocols 

Just like firefighters must check their equipment before leaving for a rescue mission, they must follow systematic steps for success. These may include –

  • Protection of uninvolved areas and buildings 
  • Confinement of the fire 
  • Ventilation of the area on fire (if enclosed) 
  • Extinguishment of the fire (beginning at its source) 

Firefighters must control the leading edge of the flame, close off pathways through which the fire may spread, and apply cooling agents. Even openings must be made to allow the toxic combustion to exit the space. 

At the time of initiating ‘salvage’ of the structure on fire, all necessary protocols must have been followed for success. Otherwise, firefighters may fail to save lives and could risk their own too. 

According to the National Fire Protection Association, a total of 65,650 firefighter injuries occurred in 2022. These included overexertion, slip and fall accidents, chemical burns, bruises, thermal stress, and smoke inhalation. 

Firefighters must risk their lives daily as they leave for ‘another day at the office.’ Hopefully, safety protocols and technologies can advance to the extent that we see fewer fatalities each year. 


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