You may have heard that firefighters aren’t allowed to wear contact lenses, or you may just be curious about whether firefighters can wear lenses, because you’re thinking about a job in the fire service? Well, there was a time when the answer to this question was “no”, but that is no longer the case.
Firefighters, in the US, are usually allowed to wear contact lenses, as long as they are able to meet the corrected vision standards set by the NFPA and they use approved types of contact lenses.
It’s obviously important for firefighters to be able to see well for the work they do, but even if that requires contact lenses, they can still do the job well. Here’s what you need to know.
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Firefighters And Contact Lenses
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is the organization that sets employment standards for firefighters. NFPA standard 1582 sets the qualification criteria for firefighters’ vision standards.
NFPA 1582 says: firefighter candidates must have far visual acuity equal or better than 20/40 binocular, corrected with contact lenses or spectacles, and far visual acuity 20/100 binocular for wearers of hard contacts or spectacles, uncorrected.
As long as you are able to meet the vision standards set in this standard, you can be a firefighter with contact lenses.
While firefighters are allowed to wear contact lenses on the job, it’s worth noting that you can’t just buy any old contact lenses, because there are real risks to your eyes when you wear contact lenses for too long and these include:
- Corneal ulcers. Yes, this is every bit as unpleasant as it sounds. The cornea is the transparent bit that covers the outer layer of your eye and protects your pupil. When it gets an ulcer, it has an open wound on the surface and it’s not at all pleasant.
- Hypoxia. This is a reduced amount of oxygen getting through to the cornea, thanks to the physical barrier created by the lens and it may cause the blood vessels in your eye to “grow abnormally”.
- The destruction of corneal stem cells. Stem cells are there to produce new versions of the cells in your cornea, which need constant replacement. When you damage these cells, they can produce faulty copies, which lead to the normally clear cornea becoming milky or stained.
- The development of chronic eye inflammation. If you get this, then you may find that over a period of time it becomes almost impossible to wear contact lenses at all.
You may also suffer more often from typical eye problems such as dry eyes or conjunctivitis.
The most sensible, cost-effective, contact lenses to buy to reduce these risks are daily disposable lenses.
These considerably reduce the risks of contracting corneal ulcers, because they don’t allow for any build-up of material under the lens (which is what causes the cut into the cornea) in the first place.
For those looking for more certainty regarding their eyes, then there are also oxygen permeable lenses on the market, which are rated safe to wear 24 hours a day, 30 days a month! Though, we doubt that anyone would ever actually want to wear their contacts for this length of time.
These lenses allow oxygen to pass freely through the surface of the lens and thus, in theory, they should be at much lower risk of the kind of damage that your eye is prone to while wearing standard lenses.
However, these are likely to be substantially more expensive than the standard daily disposable lenses and we can’t testify that they reduce the risks as much as they are claimed to. We’d like to see some hard data on this.
However, technically speaking, you can wear any form of prescription contact lens as long as your eyesight meets a minimum standard.
You can, of course, reduce the risks of getting problems from your contact lenses by carrying out some sensible precautions (though we appreciate these may not always be practical if you are on a scene fighting a fire).
- Clean hands. If you keep your hands well-scrubbed and then before you put them near your eyes, you dry them on a clean towel with no lint, you ought to have fewer contaminants enter your eyes when you put your lenses in.
- If you don’t use disposable lenses, clean them, rinse them, and properly disinfect them after use. All lenses come with an instruction booklet that explains how you should care for them – follow the instructions.
- Always use sterile cleaning solutions. You must use the saline solution that you can buy on Amazon or from an optician and never use tap water to clean your lenses. This is because tap water is often teeming with microorganisms, that might be delighted to set up their home in your eye.
- Try not to wear them overnight. If you bought the 24-hour wear lenses, ignore this, but the longer you wear your contact lenses in one go, the more risk you put your eyes in. It’s better to take them out at night and wear glasses if you can. And definitely, don’t sleep in them.
- Make sure to clean the storage case you keep your lenses in. A lot of people neglect this, but if you’re storing your lenses in a dirty container, you can hardly expect them to stay clean.
- Regularly replace your storage case. Your optician will probably provide a brand new case every time that you buy some lenses, throw the old one out then or if you use hard lenses or long-lasting lenses, talk about when you need to get rid of it and get a new one.
- Don’t wear expired contact lenses. The material in the lens starts to degrade over time, that’s why they have an expiration date. It’s a bad idea to use them after this date.
- Always discuss any eye problems with a healthcare professional as they arise. Head bigger problems off at the pass and get your healthcare professional’s input on any minor problems, you’ll soon know if they’re due to your contact lenses and you’ll know what to do to put a stop to those issues too.
Wearing Contacts With A SCBA
There was some concern regarding the use of contact lenses with a self-contained breathing apparatus.
The claim was that wearing contacts inside SCBA was dangerous and that when a problem arose, it would be difficult to deal with and put people’s lives at risk.
Well, while this sounds good in theory, it’s not borne out by research.
They used to say you shouldn’t wear contact lenses as a firefighter, because they might melt in your eyes under your mask and while it’s not impossible for this to happen, if things are hot enough for your lenses to melt under your mask, that’s the least of your problems.
So, in the paper, “Is it safe to wear contact lenses with a full-facepiece respirator”, a study of 403 firefighters who had worn lenses with SCBA, they found that there were only 6 incidents that had caused the need to remove the SCBA facepiece and that their supervisors knew of only 8 incidents in total that had caused this.
They drew the simple conclusion that safety issues when wearing contact lenses with a SCBA was not statistically significant and that the use of lenses whilst using SCBA should not be prohibited because it was effectively safe.
There is also the option to have Lasik or other eye correcting procedures to improve vision of firefighters, watch this:
Can firefighters wear contact lenses? Yes, at least, American firefighters may wear contact lenses while they work. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have to meet a minimum standard on the eyesight test though, contact lenses may be used to compensate for certain visual problems but certainly not for all levels of issue.
There are some issues surrounding the use of contact lenses and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), but not so much that you should have to jump through hoops to make it work, either. In the modern fire service, contact lenses make sense in most situations, but it’s always handy to have a pair of glasses on you, just in case you need to get rid of your lenses.