When I started on the job at a large municipal department, there was only one thermal imaging camera that was kept on the chief's buggy. Soon after, we had TICs on all our ladder trucks.
Today, 20 years later, we have a TIC on every apparatus and by next year every firefighter in the department will have a personal TIC. There is little dispute about the value of a thermal imager for everything from reading heat conditions to victim search.
The combustible gas monitor (aka gas detector) is another tool we didn't have immediate access to 20 years ago. Municipal firefighters considered gas detectors to be a hazmat tool. It was rarely carried on every apparatus. As with TICs, gas detectors are now considered standard equipment for most departments.
It isn't uncommon to find departments with four gas detectors on all frontline apparatus. More and more engine and truck companies are carrying multi-gas meters, but are they using them properly, or at all? Is there still a stigma that these monitors are for hazmat only?
Using Gas Detectors Better
Often when a valuable tool isn't used, it's due to lack of training, familiarity, and perhaps an underestimation of its value. It isn't hard to argue that a TIC-equipped firefighter has an advantage in finding a victim that may not otherwise be visible to the search team.
Since explosions due to flammable gas leaks have injured and killed first responders, it may be time to take a deeper look at how we can better utilize gas detectors in municipal fireground operations. To get better at gas detection, it may be a good idea to look at our brothers and sisters on the industrial side of firefighting.
For industrial firefighters, using a gas detector is routine. Whether it be an H2S or O2 sensor, one or the other is generally required for firefighters who enter any live process area. When any work process is performed onsite, a survey of up to 50 feet of the surrounding area is required with a gas detector. Surveys are typically performed with five gas detectors, each armed for a specific hazard. For example, a facility may have a unit where sulfur dioxide is produced. In those units, personnel are equipped with meters outfitted with SO2 sensors. Although gas detectors used by municipal firefighters may not be as specific, they should be able to detect important information such as explosive environments and lack of oxygen.
While municipal firefighters face dangers at the scene of a call, an industrial crew may spend most of their time on duty facing the potential for catastrophe if balance and order aren't maintained. Industrial facilities have dangerous gases and chemicals which, when properly treated and contained, are stable, but when things go wrong the consequences can be deadly.
A gas detector in an industrial setting is critical to make sure things are in check. A properly used gas detector alerts to the presence or absence of danger throughout the day. Most industrial firefighters have seen what happens when things go wrong and respect the ability to monitor their surroundings to avoid a catastrophe.
From the moment you're hired as an industrial firefighter the importance of gas metering is trained upon and reinforced as a life-saving skill. No work is to be performed inside of the facility, even during routine operations, without verification from your meter. Safety is what drives the gas metering trend in the industry.
An industrial facility must also minimize potential release to adjacent neighborhoods. Part of that is plume modeling to determine where potentially dangerous releases will go and how they can impact the nearby population. It takes a broad approach to monitoring exposures and the danger beyond the point of origin. This reinforces an understanding of the dangers of the invisible hazards whereas municipal firefighting tends to focus on visible flame.
Misconceptions About Metering
Unfortunately, many municipal firefighters have the misconception that metering is a "hazmat only" skill (hey, pulling hose and fighting fire is more fun than wearing a plastic suit). This mindset brands the gas detector as a specialized tool that requires specialized training. If it's a tool that can potentially save your life, why not use it effectively? Using a gas detector doesn't need to be difficult.
Even when a gas detection device is carried on municipal fire apparatus, firefighters fail to familiarize themselves with it. Unlike the industrial firefighter, the gas detection device isn't part of their regular kit and often rarely used. Lack of training and familiarity results in not using the detector on calls where it would be beneficial.
Often the rookie or a crew member who is formerly a hazmat technician is the most familiar with the meter. A good company officer will identify this as a weakness in their crew and address it accordingly.
If you have someone skilled at using the gas detector, have them set up a company drill and help the rest of the crew become more familiar. Don't rely on one person to be your meter expert. Reach out to your local industrial facility for joint training and work on improving the necessary skills while becoming familiar with your local hazards.
Fire up the meter on the way to any fire response. Although the gas monitor may not be used, it should be ready for any unknown type fire of response, leak or odor complaint. Stay familiar with the procedures for warm up, fresh-air calibration, and the sounds and readings of the gas detector. If incorporated into regular training and operations, a municipal crew will become more familiar and be able to use it when it is needed.
We can learn quite a bit from industrial firefighters when it comes to incorporating gas detection meters in our regular operations. I don't advocate standing in the doorway with fire blowing out of all windows and taking readings, but if your crew was assigned exposures, or perhaps to check an adjacent occupancy, you could bring the monitor just in case.
Whether it's an industrial facility or municipal fire call, our priority is always life safety. Whether those lives are on site or in the adjacent neighborhoods, we do what we can to protect others from potential exposure. For most of our careers, we have focused on fire, heat, and property damage.
But as studies go on, the inhalation hazards that fire produces need to be in check not just for those on site, but for those nearby. Interpretation of these readings could mean the difference between evacuation/no evacuation, chronic illness/no chronic illness, or even detection of pending explosion. You may not know the dangers if you don't monitor for them and you won't be very good at monitoring if you don't make it a regular part of your operation.
Phil Ambrose currently serves as a Battalion Chief with a large municipal department in Los Angeles County. He has served as a truck and paramedic engine company officer, hazmat coordinator, emergency manager, and EMS coordinator. Prior to the fire service in 2001, Ambrose spent several years in hazardous and radioactive materials management for private and university programs. He also founded HazmatNation.com, which provides news and training for the hazmat community.
Ryan Henry is the training officer for two volunteer fire departments in Calcasieu Parish, La. He works in safety and emergency response for a major Gulf Coast oil refinery. Henry holds an associate degree in process plant technology and is a Louisiana State University Fire and Emergency Training Institute certification evaluator. He is also senior editor for HazmatNation.com, a site dedicated to educating firefighters about hazardous materials threats and solutions.