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Trainer’s Corner: An eye-opener of a night

May 1, 2023 
By Ed Brouwer

I ordered a UV theft detection powder and UV LED flashlight combo kit online to set up a practice night that would demonstrate the full extent of cross-contamination on scene. Photo credit: Vlad Kazhan/Adobe Stock

In early 2019 I prepared a practice night that I thought would drastically change how we did things in our department. I had no idea how on point this training would be looking back through the fog of the pandemic years. It was one of those shock and awe lessons that left firefighters standing jaws agape asking, “what just happened?” At the time, the chief was calling for an immediate overhaul of our health and safety guidelines. I was thrilled, to say the least. However, looking back I’m not sure it left any kind of lasting impact other than a few hand sanitizer stations being set up. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile. 

For this practice night, I successfully demonstrated the process of cross-contamination from the fire incident to our bunker gear. And from our bunker gear to our apparatus and tools and equipment. Then from there to the fire hall and our personnel. Then to our personal vehicles…and then even to contaminants being brought into the homes of our members.    

I could have used a video or PowerPoint slides to demonstrate my point, however, I felt it important for our members to actually experience this for themselves. I wanted the “shock value” of this self-discovery. But the shock and awe was soon forgotten.

To be fair we did not really get into the “after the fire” decontamination processes, but we did mention showering, routine cleaning of gear, bagging gear before transport, and using wipes on scene. These things are addressed in the Invisible Danger video and the New Badge of Honour video. There is even a section on Bunker Gear Transfer.


Your members have the right to know any and all information regarding firefighter cancer risks. 

I was sure that after our practice we would have been able to address our slack attitude toward “after the fire” decontamination. But it was shortly after that I retired and then the pandemic hit.  

I hope you will have better success than I did. It is one of my deep regrets that I was unable to see this through. It is well documented that firefighters are at increased risk of developing certain cancers, including respiratory, urinary/reproductive system and mesothelioma amongst many others.

In 2010, researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), launched a multi-year study to examine whether firefighters have a higher risk of cancer and other causes of death due to job exposures. It was estimated that firefighter lifetime cancer risk is about 14 per cent greater than the general public. The chances of getting lung cancer and leukemia were seen to increase with fire runs and amount of time spent at fires.  

There is considerable information regarding this invisible danger via Youtube videos, PowerPoint presentations and research articles. I encourage you to do your own research.  

I realize I have shared this once before, however, it is worth you giving this a second look.  I’ve included a simple but powerful “hands on” way to prepare your members for this information that should result in a change of attitude regarding contamination transfer.

How to run the scenario
If you can pull this off at a practice night and follow up with the aforementioned videos or PowerPoints, I am sure you will get your points across, even if your department is slack in this area.

 The cost to your training budget will be around $60, a bargain to be sure if just even one member discovers how easy it is to spread the contaminates we pick up at calls.  

 I ordered a UV theft detection powder and UV LED flashlight combo kit online and received it within a week. At the time, with shipping, it worked out to $56.42.

This powder glows bright blue only under UV black light and is otherwise invisible. The trick is to lightly dust with the powder. I used a bit too much at first.   

I did not let anyone know what my real goals were for this practice. As far as they were concerned, we were doing a room search scenario. I used three small traffic cones as “bodies”. With a permanent marker, I numbered the cones one, two and three. Then using a make-up brush I covered each with a light dusting of the powder and hid the cones in various places in our fire hall.    

Once the members had donned their bunker gear, they were divided into two teams (to promote competition). Competition can create adrenaline, which helps bring a bit of realism.  

Each team was assigned an IC, and they chose members to be in SCBA (breathing air). Let me say we never, ever just go in with a mixed team of BA wearing and non-BA wearing members, however, we did make an exception in this case. Not sure about your department dynamics, but we have members who will never go into a building wearing BA (due to age or health). For this exercise, I wanted everyone to experience the contamination transfer.  

I wrote the numbers one to three on pieces of paper and had each IC choose one. They did not tell their team what number to look for. Each team was told to find one cone and then notify their IC. 

Both teams went in at the same time. In our case, one team went upstairs to the second level and the other did a left-hand search on the main floor.   

Again, this really wasn’t about the “room search”, however we had them follow our department’s SOGs. When a cone was discovered it was passed from one team member to another. Once the cone was safely in the hands of the last member, they notified the IC, who then asked them to check the number. If it was the right cone, he told them to exit the building with it. If it was not the right number, they were instructed to put the cone back where they had found it (a lot of extra handling but I wanted everyone to pick up something).

When both teams retrieved their assigned cones, we debriefed the “room searches” and engaged in a Q&A period. The members still had no idea about the real reason behind this practice. I did this so that they would not behave any different before, during or after this practice scenario.   

The practice as far as they were concerned was over, so they doffed their gear and brought the apparatus back in (we had moved all our apparatus out of the bays before starting the room search scenario). When we were “supposedly” all cleaned up and ready to go home I called for everyone’s attention. I informed them that this practice was in fact about contamination transfer.  

I explained how the invisible powder was placed on the three cones. Then we turned off the lights in the hall and my assistant trainer and I, each armed with UV flashlights, began to shine on the gear hanging up in the lockers. There were audible exclamations of surprise as gloves, helmets, and bunker gear glowed blue. When we retraced some of the search patterns, we discovered powder on the key pad for the hall door, the training room door knob and on various objects in the hall.  

It was even more of an eye opener when the UV lights lit up the powder on Engine 1’s steering wheel, door handles and BA packs. Then one member gasped as they discovered powder on their hands. This caused a bit of a stir. We had their attention to be sure.  

This brought out a verbal commitment from all our members to become vigilant in the decontamination process. We talked about the danger of bringing gear home or even keeping bunker gear bags in personal vehicles, as is the case for some volunteers. We spoke about the danger of transferring contaminants to our personal vehicles and then having our spouse use the vehicle to take the kids to school or get groceries.  

Like I said earlier, this practice led to our department immediately instituting new rules regarding cross contamination. One such rule was no more bunker gear in the training room. They also decided to order first responder coveralls that will be kept in individual bags in the medical room. The chief said no more wearing of bunker gear or multi-purpose coveralls to first response medical calls (sadly that did not happen while I was still there)

This was an eye-opening practice. I was so sure there would be many changes — good changes — to our SOGs regarding cross contamination. Although I am somewhat disappointed as to outcome of this practice it is important to recognize we do not always have the ability or opportunity to implement all the lessons we work so hard at presenting. I encourage you to keep on doing your best. Don’t give up or give in. Training certainly seemed easier a decade or so ago when we concentrated on putting the wet stuff on the red stuff. However, with a greater awareness of PTSD, the recent opioid crisis, and the pandemic, the importance and scope of the fire service training officer has grown exponentially. I encourage you to just keep on keeping on…keep doing your best whether you see the results or not.  

Our part in saving lives begins at the fire hall, with our members. Thank you for all you do in the fire service.  I am proud to be named among you. Until next issue, 4-9-4 Ed Brouwer.

 Ed Brouwer is the chief instructor for Canwest Fire in Osoyoos, B.C., retired deputy chief training officer for Greenwood Fire and Rescue, a fire warden, wildland urban interface fire-suppression instructor and ordained disaster-response chaplain. Contact

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