News | January 08, 2008

Fire Fighters Advocate Screening for Carbon Monoxide Using Pulse CO-Oximetry

January 9, 2008 - The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) recently issued education materials to more than 3,000 local union presidents in the U.S. and Canada calling for routine carbon monoxide (CO) screening using a pulse CO-oximeter for all fire fighters potentially exposed to CO.

The IAFF, representing more than 287,000 full-time, professional fire fighters and emergency medical personnel who protect 85 percent of the nation’s population, is the primary advocate for providing fire fighters and paramedics with the tools they need to perform their jobs, including implementation of new training programs and equipment.

In a letter to all local union presidents in North America, the IAFF highlighted the need for a new protocol whereby any fire fighter potentially exposed to CO and presenting with headache, nausea, shortness of breath, or gastrointestinal symptoms should be assessed using a pulse CO-oximeter. IAFF General President Harold A. Schaitberger acknowledged the prevalence, severity and frequency of the detrimental effects of CO.

“We believe that many of the cardiac arrests fire fighters are experiencing may well be attributable to CO exposure,” Schaitberger said.

Because CO is present in every fire and its symptoms are nonspecific and easy to miss, the dangers of acute and prolonged CO poisoning are more pronounced for fire fighters. According to the IAFF, the risk of prolonged CO exposure during a fire does not end once the fire is controlled. The overhaul phase of fire control, when fire fighters seek out and extinguish any remaining fires to eliminate rekindles and stabilize both the structure and scene, can be time consuming and expose firefighters to CO levels high enough to cause death or permanent impairment. Additionally, repeated or accumulated exposures present an even greater risk to fire fighters.

Even a single high-level exposure, or prolonged exposure to low levels of CO, has the potential to cause long-term cardiac, neurocognitive and psychiatric damage. The long-term effects of CO - including Parkinson-like syndromes affecting motor skills and speech, dementia, cortical blindness, acute renal failure, and muscle cell death - can be devastating for fire fighters and their families.

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