After the Fire’s Out

July 9, 2013

Even when a fire has been extinguished and it seems safe for firefighters to take off their respirators, it’s possible that dangerous chemicals are still causing lung damage. Researchers from the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health have partnered with the Northwest Fire Department to better understand these risks and to design new ways to further protect firefighters.

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Using the live burn training facility at Northwest Fire Department in Marana, Ariz., researchers are evaluating the gasses that evolve from overhaul activity.

“Overhaul stage is when the bulk of the fire is extinguished and the levels of carbon monoxide are down below what we deem as a safe range,” said Richard Martinez, Northwest Fire District Captain. This is the time when firefighters can take off their respirators. In this stage, the bulk of the smoke is gone because the fire is gone but there is still smoldering."

“There is preliminary evidence that chemicals can continue to evolve off of this smoldering, still hot environment,” says Eric Lutz, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Sciences. “We want to get a better understanding of what that risk to firefighters is, related to those chemicals and vapors that are evolving in that overhaul environment.”

“In conjunction with Dr. Eric Lutz, we designed and manufactured a four-armed air intake manifold: I don’t know anybody who has done this before,” says Leaton Jones, Master of Science student in the college.

Pallets are burned and when the carbon monoxide has dropped to 30 parts per million, which is the cut-off point for firefighters to be able to take off their respirators and begin the overhaul process, the research begins. Researchers have designed the system to best simulate overhaul conditions.

The manifold pulls air through the system comparing three or four different cartridges and canisters that could be used during overhaul activities as part of an air-purifying respirator system.  

From this work, researchers will have a much better understanding of the breadth and depth of chemicals that are impacting the respiratory systems of first responders when entering a structure that has had its fire extinguished but continues to evolve these gasses. And they will be able to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of various cartridges and canisters for filtering out the chemicals that are in this environment.

“The University of Arizona and the College of Public Health take very seriously their collaborations with the community around them,” Lutz says. “It’s important that we don’t just do science for science sake – but to actually generate results that ultimately lead to the betterment of the community.”