Wildland respiratory protection is very important, yet is often overlooked when fighting fires in the field. Often, firefighters use basic bandanas or disposable N95 masks for protection due to their lightweight and small size. These methods, however, do not effectively protect against the fine particulate matter and gas hazards firefighters may encounter throughout a wildfire response. Air-purifying respirators (APRs) and powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) are small and portable and offer protection to users like wildland firefighters from hazardous air particles, smoke, and gases. This equipment falls under the Authorized Equipment List (AEL) reference numbers 01AR-02-APRW, titled “Respirator, Air-Purifying, Negative Pressure Wildland Fire Fighting,” and 01AR-03-PAPW, titled “Respirator, Powered Air-Purifying (PAPR) Wildland Fire Fighting.”
Proper Respiratory Protection from wildfire suppression operations
APRs and PAPRs are types of personal protective equipment (PPE) that use filters, gas cartridges, and other particulate filtering cartridge types to protect against harmful particulates and gases. The respirators can use particulate filters, targeted gas-capture cartridges, or combination cartridges to remove contaminants from the air. Particulate filters can capture aerosols such as dust, fumes, smoke, and mold. Gas cartridges can remove targeted harmful gases, while combination cartridges remove a broader range of both particulates and gases.
These respirators are available in half-mask and full-face mask configurations. Due to the portability of APRs and PAPRs, wildland firefighters can use and carry them when deployed to arduous and hazardous conditions in mountain terrain, forests, grasslands, and areas that can only be accessed by foot. Firefighters who work in wildland urban interface (WUI) settings can use and carry APRs and PAPRs to protect themselves from burning materials when performing structural triage and defense.
How to Stay Protected as a Wildland Firefighter
Air Quality Monitoring
Monitoring air quality in our communities and wild lands involves measuring various pollutants, such as particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide. These measurements can be taken in many areas using a variety of methods, including ground-based monitoring stations, aerial surveys using drones, and satellite-based remote sensing.
Wear Protective Clothing
Wearing protective clothing can help minimize exposure to the temperatures and airborne hazards of wildfires. Wildland fire clothing such as a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and gloves can help to protect your skin from irritation and burns from the temperatures of wildfires while also preventing wildfire smoke and other hazards of wildfires from coming into contact with and burning your skin.
Monitor Your Health
Seek medical attention right away if you experience symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath while working outside. Early prevention of intervention can aid the prevention, in the prevention of serious respiratory problems.
Pay attention to local air quality reports and be aware of the risks associated with wildfire smoke and other airborne hazards. If air quality is particularly poor, consider rescheduling outdoor work or taking other steps to minimize exposure. To reduce the wildfire risk of wildfire smoke and protect public health, it’s essential to understand wildfire risk and fire danger. The Jersey Forest Fire Service regularly updates the public on the weather, wildfire, the current fire danger levels and provides guidelines for how to prepare for wildfires.
Numerous types of particulate filters for APRs are available. Filters are designated with the letter N, R, or P to indicate their resistance to oil. N filters are not resistant to oil, R filters are resistant to oil, and P filters are oil proof. Filters receive a designation of 95, 99, or 100 to indicate the percentage of particles removed. Type 95 filters remove 95% of particles, 99 filters remove 99% of particles, and 100 filters remove 99.7% of particles. Currently the only filters available for PAPRs are high efficiency particulate air filters (HEPA) [which remove 99.5% of particles with a size of 0.3 microns]. When purchasing, users should verify their selected filters meet their operational and agency requirements.
During different burn phases, wildland firefighters may be exposed to carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, organic vapors, sulfur dioxide, and other chemicals. Chemicals and gases encountered in various environments can be absorbed and filtered using gas and combination cartridges. Cartridges should be replaced when their service life expires, when the user moves to a new environment, when the user is exposed to a new contaminant, or when the user experiences resistance while breathing through the respirator. Users should ensure that the cartridges they choose meet their operational and agency requirements at the time of purchase.
Mask Types, Features and Fitting
A half-mask respirator may be more appropriate for wildland firefighting operations in general. The small size and light weight of the half mask allow for increased portability and maneuverability. These characteristics may be especially important for many wildland fire and firefighters, who must frequently hike several miles to a remote base camp or fire line. When a respirator must be worn for an extended period, half masks may also help prevent claustrophobia.
Full-face masks can protect the wearer’s eyes from acute fire and chronic smoke exposure, reducing the risk of eye irritation. However, the larger size and additional weight of full-face respirators may be uncomfortable and may induce claustrophobia in some wearers, especially if worn for extended periods. Also, studies have shown that using a full face mask during the temperatures and long shifts may result in increased risk of heat stress and headaches.
Wildland fires are a force of nature that can be nearly as impossible to prevent, and as difficult to control, as hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods.
Who Regulates Wildland Firefighting?
Since 1890, the federal Forest Department has managed a wildland fire in the National Forest and Grasslands. The federal Forest Service cannot do it all on its own. It also has close relationships with the various communities and federal, tribal, state, and municipal governments. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Respiratory Protection Standard (29 CFR 1910.134) requires fit tests to be conducted upon initial issuance of the unit and annually thereafter to verify each mask has an adequate seal between the respirator and the user’s face. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) requires particulate filters undergo a filter efficiency test and are designated by class as defined by the in 42 CFR 84.
Standards and regulations that wildland fire firefighters should be aware of to ensure proper respiratory protection during firefighting operations also include those from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500, the federal National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) PPE Standards, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Wildland Fire Smoke Guide. By following these guidelines, firefighters can protect their health and reduce the risk of respiratory problems caused by exposure to smoke, ash, and other air pollution during wildfires.
New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection agency
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) is a state agency in the U.S. state of New Jersey that is responsible for protecting and managing the state’s natural resources and ensuring a clean and healthy environment for its citizens. The NJDEP is responsible for enforcing state and federal environmental laws and regulations, issuing permits for activities that impact the environment, conducting research and monitoring of the environment, doing environmental protection, and providing technical assistance, environmental protection, and educational resources on environmental protection to the public.
The NJDEP’s programs and initiatives include:
Air Quality Management: Monitors and regulates air emissions to protect public health and the environment.
Water Quality Management: Protects and manages the state’s water resources through monitoring, regulation, and restoration programs.
Land Use Management: Regulates land use and development to protect natural resources, promote sustainable growth, and support economic development.
Hazardous Waste Management: Regulates the generation, transportation, treatment, and disposal of hazardous waste to protect public health and the environment.
Sustainability: Promotes sustainable practices and policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve natural resources, and support a green economy.
Wildfire Suppression Operations
Wildfire and fire suppression operations refer to the coordinated efforts to contain and extinguish fires that occur naturally in wildland areas. These large fires and fire down operations involve various tactics and strategies to minimize the spread of fire, prevent loss of life, and protect property and natural resources.
Being a Wildland Firefighter
Wildland firefighters typically work long hours, often in remote and rugged terrain and under extreme weather conditions. They must be physically fit, mentally strong, and able to work well in a team. Wildland firefighters use a variety of tools and equipment, including chainsaws, hoses, and hand tools, to create fire lines and control the spread of fires.
Despite the challenges and risks, many people find working as a wildland firefighter to be a rewarding and fulfilling career. It provides an opportunity to work in some of the most beautiful and remote areas of the country, to work as part of a team to protect the environment, and to make a difference in people’s lives by helping to prevent and control wildfires.
Wildland firefighters nationwide, perhaps worldwide, will benefit from the innovation of a respirator device that can be utilized in the line of duty. The respirator actively removes unwanted pollutants and toxins from ambient air and then delivers the clean air to a face mask. Our team seeks to develop a respiratory protection unit to potentially be used in a wide variety of applications for several occupations and in extreme environmental conditions, in addition to wildland firefighting.
Frequently Asked About Wildland Respiratory Safety
What is in Wildland Fire Smoke?
Wildland fire smoke is a mixture of gases and particles such as carbon monoxide (CO) and respirable particulate matter (PM) that may cause short- and long-term health effects. Wildland residents and firefighters can be exposed to smoke at wildfires and “prescribed” fires (planned and intentionally ignited low-intensity fires). The contents of and exposure to wildfire smoke can vary greatly throughout the day depending on the vegetation type, fire behavior, and meteorological conditions.
Research has shown that both wildland fire residents and firefighters have been exposed to gases and particles such as CO and PM above the occupational exposure limits during both wildland and severe wildfires and prescribed fires. While burning vegetation is the primary exposure of concern for wildland and severe wildfires and prescribed fires, when fires burn in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), where wildland vegetation and urban areas meet, the smoke may contain compounds that are more similar to what structural firefighters encounter.
Wildland fire firefighters will often suppress these fires and may be exposed to some of the hazardous compounds of WUI smoke such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), flame retardants, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). However, most wildland fire firefighters do not have the benefit of wearing some of the personal protective equipment (PPE) typically used in a structural response (e.g., self-contained breathing apparatus [SCBA], turnout gear) that could protect these compounds. Additionally, wildland firefighters may be exposed to smoke at firefighting base camps (incident command posts) where they eat and rest while off-duty.
What Do We Know About the Health of Wildland Firefighters?
Cardiovascular and Lung Health
In the past recent years, decade in recent years, several studies have linked exposure to wildfire smoke to short-term health effects, such as increases in inflammation and respiratory effects, such as lung function decline. However, these studies have only examined the health effects of firefighter, across a few shifts longer fire seasons or a single fire season. Researchers suspect that exposure to particulate matter and other contaminants from wildfire smoke, heavy physical exertion, extreme fire behavior, existing health and behavior risk factors, and cardiovascular strain could contribute to sudden cardiac events for wildland firefighters during longer fire seasons. Recent research indicates that wildland firefighters may be at an increased risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease and lung cancer than the general public because of their career exposure to wildfire smoke.
The strenuous work of firefighter do, long work shifts, long distances, close living and working conditions, the weather and temperatures during wildfire is, limited access to hygiene supplies, the temperatures, and a workforce that responds to wildfire incidents all over the country on short notice—including wildland fire incidents may be conducive to the transmission of infectious diseases from wildfire, including SARS-CoV-2. Exposure to air pollutants in wildfire smoke can irritate the lungs, cause inflammation, alter immune function, and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections, possibly including COVID-19. In addition to wildfire is potentially making firefighters more vulnerable to getting COVID-19, inflammation in the respiratory tract due to wildfire smoke might also increase the risk of developing more severe outcomes for those with COVID-19.
Heat-Related Illness and Rhabdomyolysis
Due to the temperatures and the nature of their work, firefighters are at risk of developing severe heat-related illnesses (such as heat stroke) and rhabdomyolysis (muscle breakdown). Delays in diagnosis and initiating treatment of these illnesses increase the risk of permanent muscle damage. Since 2010, 62 cases of severe rhabdomyolysis on fire have been reported to a passive surveillance system designed to capture fatalities and certain types of injuries and illnesses, including rhabdomyolysis. The actual number of cases is likely higher due to underreporting and inconsistencies in reporting requirements and systems. Before 2010, there were no cases reported.
Wildland firefighters work around power tools and heavy equipment in smoke conditions that produce noise levels that are hazardous to hearing. In addition to causing hearing loss, noise exposure may also cause tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears), an increased heart rate, fatigue, and interfere with verbal communication. Researchers from NIOSH and the United States Forest Service (USFS) evaluated personal noise measurements on 156 former wildland firefighting firefighters conducting various training and wildland firefighting and suppression tasks and reported that 85 of the 174 measurements were above the NIOSH maximum allowable daily dose. A follow-up study showed mixed use of hearing protection; while almost all the wildland firefighting firefighters were aware of the noise in their environment and potential risk, very few were enrolled in hearing conservation programs.