Why are Firefighting Overhaul Duties so Dangerous?

10.07.2019 Written by: Henningson & Snoxell, Ltd.

Firefighters performing overhaul duties

What are Overhaul Duties?

In municipal structural firefighting, duties are generally divided into two distinct phases: knockdown and overhaul. The knockdown phase of firefighting is what we the public think of when we think about firefighting: firefighters work to control and extinguish the fire. At a large structure fire, such as at a warehouse or a large house fire, firefighters may spend hours working to extinguish the fire. However, typically 90% of municipal fires are extinguished within 5 – 10 minutes. The environment during knockdown is hot and smoky with low visibility. Knockdown duties may be performed from inside the structure or defensively from the outside.

The overhaul phase of firefighting includes duties such as searching for hidden fires within the structure or “hot spots,” entering the structure, tearing down walls or flooring, and involve heavy work for an extended part of time. Unlike the knockdown duties, firefighters may have to engage in heavy work for hours performing salvage operations. While there may not be as much smoke and it may not be quite as hot, the environment firefighters work is still hot with low visibility and the air contains the products of combustion from small fires and the smoldering material.



The Dangers of Overhaul Duties

While performing overhaul duties, firefighters may trip in the unknown low visibility environment, fall down stairs, fall into unexpected holes, or flooring or ceiling may give way causing injury to those above or below. Firefighters are working with heavy equipment in less than optimal environments. Furthermore, firefighters are exposed to toxic carcinogens that may lead to development of cancer. Overhaul of a structure for extended periods of time increase lung permeability, which increases the risk of smoke inhalation and exposure to carcinogens through the airway. Carcinogens still linger in the air and on the material inside the structure long after the fire is extinguished. These carcinogens include soot and other chemicals or particulates found in smoke, such as benzene.

While the culture of firefighting has changed over the years, in the past firefighters typically did not wear masks or other protective equipment while performing overhaul duties. The danger was believed to have passed, since the large fire was not actively burning, and smoke was not pouring from the structures. However, this is not the case. Carcinogens may enter through the airway or the skin and are most certainly still present in the environment. Studies have shown the carcinogens are even found inside face masks and inside the firefighters heavy turnout gear. Fire investigators are also especially exposed while spending long periods of time in the environment after a fire has been extinguished.


Attempts to Solve the Problem

Departments are working to lower the risk of these exposures to firefighters, by instituting policies for washing gear, strictly wearing personal protective equipment, and even exploring sauna use after fires to clear the body of toxic chemicals. Departments, organizations, and firefighters are working to raise awareness of these serious dangers.

Firefighters work in extreme environments that expose them to death and injury in the line of duty. As such, it’s important to know your legal rights if you suffer an injury while in the course and scope of your employment as a first responder. A firefighter who suffers a career ending injury may be entitled to wage loss, medical expenses, and rehabilitation benefits under the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act, PERA Duty Disability benefits that allow a member to receive 60% of his or her “high five” salary non-taxable until age 55, and Healthcare Continuation Benefits under Minnesota Statute §299A.465 which provide for healthcare benefits as if the member was still with the department until age 65.

If you or someone you know has suffered an injury contact Attorney Mary Beth Boyce at 763-560-5700 at Henningson & Snoxell, Ltd. for a no obligation free consultation to explain your rights under work comp, PERA disability, and healthcare continuation law. Meet with someone who has experience and knowledge in representing firefighters injured in the line of duty.


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