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Wildfires: Tackling emerging respiratory hazards


In recent years, western Canada has been battling more frequent and severe wildfires, giving rise to safety concerns over the ability of emergency protocols and procedures to protect first responders who attend to such emergency situations.

A good case in point was the 2016 wildifre in Fort McMurray, Alberta when a wildfire review revealed that RCMP officers who attended to the emergency lacked proper masks to protect them from smoke from forest fires and burning buildings that engulfed the city. The review, entitled K Division Fort McMurray Fire Response 2016 Best Practices and Lessons Learned, said N95 respirators should have been replaced by 3M half-face respirators that “provide a higher level of protection.

Unlike firefighters who are equipped with the necessary protective gear, what respiratory protection is needed for first responders like police officers or paramedics who might be called upon to attend to occasional fires, but lack the specialized protective gear that professional firefighters are equipped with?

“When we talk about wildfire, we are talking about smoke and a lot of different particulates in the ambient air,” says Sylvain Lefebvre, respiratory product manager with DSI Safety Inc. in Laval, Quebec. Although disposable masks that start with N95 or P95 might stop particulates, some particulates contain toxic vapour that could permeate the respirator. As such, there is research showing that disposable masks are not the proper respirators to use in the event of a wildfire.

“You basically need to go with a cartridge respirator so the cartridge will absorb the vapour, and the filter on these cartridges are available with both types of filter elements,” Lefebvre explains.

3M has published two technical bulletins on the use of respiratory protection and personal protective equipment (PPE) during wildfires and clean-up efforts. “For people who are not fighting the fire or away from fire ground, they are able to use respirators that are commonly used in the industry today,” Blundell says.

Disposable respirators like 3M’s Aura™ Particulate Respirator, 9211+ provide comfort by reducing exposure to airborne dusts and smoke particles. For those who fight wildfires, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has published a standard on respirators for wildland firefighting operations, Blundell adds.

For protection against toxic gases, vapours and particulates in a firefighting environment, 3M’s Air-Pak™ X3 Pro self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is built on a foundation of redundant safety features that offer comfort, ease of cleaning as well as connectivity. The shoulder harness is designed to minimize pressure points and reduce fatigue, while the natural articulation of the waist pad promotes greater range of motion and transfers weight to the hips for a more balanced load. The harness material also offers greater resistance to chemical and water absorption to minimize contamination.

In addition, the Air-Pak X3 Pro SCBA supports wireless connectivity between the firefighter and Incident Command by enabling communciation between the two parties through the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), hence reducing radio traffic. Firefighters and Incident Command can also share SCBA status and request for aid to improve firefighter safety.

Hygiene is an important factor when it comes to maintaining respirators since these equipment are exposed to contaminants. Lefebvre recommends disassembling a respirator and using a disinfectant to wash it thoroughly at least once a week. A visual inspection should be conducted before wearing a respirator and storing it away at the end of the day as some key protective parts, like the inhalation valve, might have sustained damage through use.

Jean Lian is editor of OHS Canada.