Dirty gear – dirty mind, get ‘em clean!

By Chief Sam DiGiovanna

Studies have proven the importance to clean your Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) after fires to reduce the deadly and dangerous exposure of poisons and toxic carcinogens that enter the body from contaminated PPE.

In 2014, the largest cohort study to date found an increased mortality and incidence risk for all cancers among firefighters.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is our most critical line of defense against the dangerous environment which we perform our duties. Without doubt, keeping our gear clean, well maintained, and safely stored, contributes to our over-all health and safety.

With all the data collected, policies now dictate the need for two sets of turnout gear, gross decon at  incidents, cleaning and sanitization of equipment, extraction machines etc. all which help clean our PPE reducing the dangers associated with “Dirty Gear.”

But there is a different but similar threat to our health and well-being which is equally as dangerous. We will call this “The Dirty Mind.” 

With 70 to 80 percent of our calls being EMS related, first responders continue to see an increase of traumatic calls and incidents. Personnel regularly witness multiple lives lost, and towns decimated by wildfires. These wildfires used to be a once a career incident, now we respond on two – three times a year. Personnel have seen a huge increase in traumatic calls to children, elderly, homeless and spousal abuse, which all are on the rise. Exposure to different disease’s and blood borne pathogens along with physical and verbal threats are also on the rise. These traumatic calls are impacting our personnel’s mental health and well-being. 

The accumulation of these calls can cause permanent and sometimes fatal damage emotionally and physically. Traumatic images stay in our mind. Many people will resort to drugs/alcohol/sex/gambling to help cope. Suicide amongst first responders is starting to surpass Line of Duty Deaths. Just like cleaning our PPE after fires, we need to clean and decontaminate our minds after traumatic incidents.

We can easily identify charred gear, equipment, soot, debris, and grime on our PPE after fires, however it is extremely difficult (sometimes impossible) to identify damage accumulated in the mind after traumatic incidents. Both may not have immediate signs that can harm us, however, with time they are cumulative resulting in unhealthy diseases with a possibly deadly outcome.

Every agency has policies addressing the need to clean and disinfect our PPE and our skin, but what policies and/or system is in place to clean our mind and extract the trauma we are exposed to mentally? Do you or does your agency have a trusted, confidential source you can go to 24/7 – 365 to discuss with a qualified, licensed therapist to help clean and disinfect the mind? If not, just like dirty PPE you can expect “toxins” to take over causing both emotional and physical damage.

Let’s not forget that cleansing wipes remove contamination from neck skin, reducing contamination levels by about 54 percent. Not all cleansing wipes are equally effective. Firefighters should follow up with more thorough cleansing such as showering or hand washing as soon as practicable after the fire.

It is important to keep your blood & skin clean, your body lean, and your mind keen. Make sure your agency has a trusted system available to you and the members in your organization to achieve this.                  

We enter our career healthy and strong. Make sure you end your career healthy and strong, including a strong and healthy mind!

Sam DiGiovanna is a 35-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as Fire Chief at the Monrovia Fire Department, and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale. He also is VP of Fire Operations at www.Cordico.com