Firefighters undergo extensive decontamination process after blaze

Whether it's a fire with heavy smoke or one caused by a pot on a stove, every time Waterloo region firefighters return to the station they go through an extensive decontamination process.

Firefighters can be exposed to around 70 million different types of chemicals over job lifetime

Over the course of their career a firefighter can be exposed to around $70 million different chemicals. (Joe Pavia/CBC)

Whether it's a fire with heavy smoke or one caused by a pot on a stove, firefighters in Waterloo region undergo a multi-step, hour-long decontamination process after returning from the scene of a blaze.

Years of research, including a recent paper by the University of Ottawa, has warned of the dangerous toxins firefighters can absorb at the scene of a fire.

"Over the course of their life on the job they can be exposed to around 70 million different types of chemicals," said Ryan Schubert, the Deputy Chief support services for Waterloo Fire Rescue.
Waterloo Deputy Fire Chief Ryan Schubert said firefighters go through an extensive personal and equipment decontamination after every fire. (Joe Pavia/CBC)

Some of those chemicals include benzene, hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide. 

Schubert said many of the chemicals are found in modern furnishings in our homes and exposure can happen when fighting a fire from the inside or outside of a structure, and even after the flames have been extinguished. 

"They're often exposed to toxins and chemicals during firefighting operations. In addition when they are performing rescue operations where they actually have to go into a dwelling or structure," said Schubert. 

"They're exposed after the fact when they're taking off their bunker gear. And then we have our fire prevention officers who are conducting the investigations after a fire who are also exposed."

Deputy Fire Chief Ryan Schubert said it used to be a badge of honour for a firefighter to return from a fire with a blackened helmet. Fire crews now thoroughly clean the helmet along with their goggles and breathing apparatus. (Joe Pavia/CBC)

The cleaning process

Fully decontaminating equipment and gear can take up to an hour and all firefighters go through the multi-step decontamination process, which includes:

  • Placing all protective equipment that's been exposed to toxins in a plastic bag before re-entering the cabin in the fire truck.    
  • Returning all contaminated equipment, such as fire hoses, to the rear of the fire truck, separate from the crew cabin.  
  • Using wet wipes to clean their head, neck, face, and armpits to remove surface toxins.
  • Showering after responding to a fire. 
  • Cleaning and laundering their protective jacket, pants, helmets and goggles to get rid of any toxins.  
  • Cleaning the carpet and seats in the fire truck cabin at least once a month. 

About the Author

Joe Pavia


Joe Pavia is a Reporter/Editor with CBC K-W 89.1 FM. He's normally heard weekdays on The Morning Edition but also covers a wide range of news and feature stories for both radio and web. If you have a story idea, email Joe at Follow him on twitter @PaviaJoe1964