Can Firefighter Gear Stand Up to Flood Waters?

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From biological hazards to infectious organisms, floodwaters can be a deadly for first responders. Find out how to protect firefighter gear amid the floods.

From a gear perspective, firefighters are less likely to use turnout clothing during a hurricane response, but often will continue to wear their standard PPE given the fact that downed power lines combined with multiple fire hazards warrant some form of protection despite the soggy conditions.

Physical hazards including debris fields and unsteady structures will further contribute to exposure risks. However, the more ominous and persistent risk will be exposure to the contamination associated with floodwaters and its aftermath. How clothing and equipment are used under these conditions is an equally important consideration for maintaining health and well-being of firefighters and other first responders.

Floodwater Hazards

Floodwaters are a known source of extensive chemical contamination. In urban areas, the hazards associated with contaminated floodwaters are much worse given the abundance of human activity, combined with industrial facilities. Firefighters are at risk from a number of deadly hazards:

  • Chemicals released due to flooded production plants
  • Household chemicals despite dilution in floodInwaters
  • Infectious organisms
  • Compromised sewage systems creating biological hazards, such as E. Coli, Salmonella and Shigella
  • Mold
  • Fungi
  • Diseases transmitted due to increased mosquitos from standing, stagnant water
Firefighter Gear PPE Requirements and Cleanup Procedures

Unless watertight PPE is being worn, firefighters and other first responders operating in flooded areas are simply going to get wet with contaminated water.

Though there is a standard – NFPA 1952 – that specifies requirements for protective clothing and equipment for use in surface water operations, there are currently no certified products to the standard.

Use the best gear possible. Some clothing items do more to keep contaminated floodwaters away from the skin than others, such as waders or dry suits, though they are costly.

Clean or dispose of contaminated PPE properly. Any items exposed to contaminated floodwaters should be cleaned and disinfected immediately. The use of non-bleach sanitizing agents is recommended to neutralize any residual microorganisms on the clothing. Long exposure to floodwaters may require the disposal of certain PPE.

Keeping Firefighter Gear PPE Protected in Floodwaters

Vigilance against exposure to contaminated areas is crucial. First responders are encouraged to wear disposable gloves, a mask and goggles when handling contaminated material, as well as guarding against contaminated surfaces with frequent hand-washing and disinfectant wipes.

These events mandate additional considerations for personal protection on a larger scale than generally encountered, but they can be adequately addressed with some forethought and appropriate actions for maintaining firefighter health and safety.

About the author

Jeffrey and Grace Stull are president and vice president, respectively, of International Personnel Protection, Inc. They are members of several National Fire Protective Association committees on personal protective equipment as well as the ASTM International committee on protective clothing. Stull was formerly the convener for international work groups on heat/thermal protection and hazardous materials PPE as well as the lead U.S. delegate for International Standards Organization Technical Committee 94/Subcommittees on Protective Clothing and Firefighter PPE. They participate in the Interagency Board for Equipment Standardization and Interoperability and have authored the book, “PPE Made Easy.” [The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of the sponsor.]

Read the original guide, Firefighter Safety After the Flood Waters Recede, on FireRescue1.com.

About the author

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