Firefighters are becoming increasingly aware of the long-term effects — namely cancer — of wearing dirty personal protective clothing that exposes them to both known and unknown contaminants through skin absorption and off-gassing.
There are also short-term risks associated with wearing soiled protective clothing. One of greatest risk is that as more particles attach to and remain on protective gear, that gear gradually loses its effectiveness — putting firefighters at increased risk. That the protective clothing that's designed to protect a firefighter may then facilitate a dangerous event because it reflects less radiant heat, becomes more flammable and can even conduct electricity.
Both the short- and long-term risks associated with wearing soiled and contaminated protective clothing can be minimized through regular cleaning following the manufacturer's recommendations. Additional guidance can be found in NFPA 1851: Standard on Selection, Care and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting.
Through the use of the right washer-extractor, protective clothing can be properly cleaned — preserving the gear's protective integrity.
For structural gear, manufacturers recommend a front-loading washing machine, which does not have an agitator, and preferably one that is designated specifically for cleaning turnouts. A stainless steel tub is preferred.
They caution that the washer's extractor G-force is very important and suggest that 85 Gs is best, but certainly no more than 100 Gs. If you are trying to convert revolutions per minute to G force, you can do so using the following formula:
- CRPM = Cylinder rpm.
- CD = Cylinder diameter (inches).
- G-forces = CRPM x CRPM x CD /70,500
When machine washing, always prepare the clothing as directed, by separating liners and drag rescue devices from the outer shells and fastening all closure systems. Use warm water and a normal cycle; water temperature should not exceed 105°F.
Following each complete wash cycle, and thoroughly rinse the garments. Liners should be turned inside out and smaller items, like gloves and protective hoods, should be laundered in a mesh bag. Every separable component should be laundered separately.
Protective clothing should always be washed by itself. Do not overload the washing machine, do not use softeners and never use chlorine bleach.
1. Highly programmable
NFPA 1851 states that soiled protective gear should be washed in a highly programmable front-load washer-extractor. A highly programmable washer allows fire departments to alter how they wash gear based on changing recommendations and fabric innovations.
A highly programmable machine allows the user to program every variable of the wash process, including extract speed in G-force, number of baths, water temperatures, water levels, cylinder rotation options, mechanical action, wash time and automatic chemical injection.
With these machines, fire departments can properly clean virtually any fabric type. Once the machine is programmed, the user enters a code and presses start.
The gear is cleaned automatically and properly every time with the right mix of chemicals, water temperature, water levels and extract speed. The load results are consistent every time, regardless of who is doing the wash.
2. Chemical injection
A washer-extractor with this feature will automatically inject exact amounts of cleaning chemicals at exactly the right time in the wash process and at the right water temperature.
It is very important that fire departments choose a washer-extractor with this feature because it prevents chemical overuse that will damage the fabric. It also saves the department money through more efficient use of those chemicals.
Washer-extractors that are freestanding dramatically simplify installation and reduce installation costs. That's because soft-mount washers do not require a reinforced concrete foundation, whereas hard-mount washers do.
Hard-mount washers must be bolted to a thick concrete foundation, are harder to access for maintenance and are more cumbersome to relocate.
Soft-mount units make use of a heavy-duty suspension system that absorbs the energy of the operating unit and thus eliminates the need for bolting the unit to the floor. Soft-mount washers can be installed nearly anywhere there is extra space, including truck bays with in-floor heat, utility areas and second-floor laundry rooms. They are also easier to service and maintain because they are more accessible.
4. Energy efficiency
Going green is not only good for the environment, it can be good for the pocketbook as well. By purchasing an energy-efficient washer-extractor, a fire department can lower natural gas, water and electricity usage costs. That's an important purchasing factor in these days of tight budgets.
Depending on laundry volume, most fire departments will need to install 20-, 30-, 40- or 55-pound-capacity washers.
There are a couple of resources that evaluate the efficiency of 20-pound capacity washer-extractors — like Energy Star and the Consortium for Energy Efficiency — but none that rate the efficiency of larger models. Look for manufacturers that have had their larger washers evaluated for efficiency by independent laboratories such as Intertek.
The U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System has become the nationally accepted benchmark for qualifying, measuring and documenting green buildings. Sustainable construction focuses on developing buildings, including fire stations, which use less energy and water and offer a healthy working environment.
By selecting a washer that is LEED-recognized, fire departments can be one step closer to attaining LEED certification.
Paying for it
The U.S. Fire Administration addressed this issue several years ago when it added laundry equipment to the list of what could be purchased with Assistance to Firefighters Grant money. Laundry equipment manufacturers have taken steps to ensure that their products comply with AFG requirements.
That designation by the USFA has gone a long way toward giving fire departments access other grant sources, such as The Heritage Program, a corporate giving program at Fireman's Fund that awards a portion of the company’s profits to support firefighters for safer communities.
Selecting the washer-extractor that best meets the laundry needs of your department is a sound investment in both your people and their PPC. With proper use, a washer/extractor can ensure that both have long and successful careers.