Firefighters around the world put faith in their personal protective equipment, particularly their structural firefighting ensemble. The collective costs of the individual items that make up the turnout gear ensemble are one of the costlier purchases for any department — whether for new recruits or replacement gear for current members.
A full protective ensemble, including helmet, hood, suspenders, coat, pants, boots and gloves, can cost about $2,000. Along with proper prescribed cleaning and drying, properly storing turnout gear can greatly extend the life of the structural firefighting ensemble.
Research, testing and evaluation of PPE tells us that there are several things that can have an adverse impact on the life-cycle of firefighting PPE, particularly the integrity of the PPE fabric. Here’s a look at the five leading factors.
- Exposure to sunlight and other sources of UV rays, like fluorescent lighting.
- Moisture damage (mildew) from gear not being properly dried.
- Retention of fire gases and toxic substances from soiled PPE that’s not been cleaned and dried.
- Surface contamination, especially soot, and other debris from firefighting operations.
- Surface contamination from diesel exhaust particulates from fire apparatus.
This last hazard is exacerbated if the apparatus bay is not properly equipped with a diesel exhaust particulate removal system.
4 principles to prolong PPE life
1. Keep it clean
Regular cleaning and complete drying, per the manufacturer’s recommendations, is critical for extending the life of the protective coat and trousers. Clean turnout gear also presents less exposure to the firefighter from surface contaminants and toxins trapped in the fabric.
Boots, gloves, hoods and helmets also require regular inspection and cleaning to prolong their useful lives.
2. Get it dry quickly
A firefighter’s PPE may not become soiled to the point of needing a thorough cleaning, but it does routinely get wet and it gets exposed to smoke and soot particles that can penetrate the fabric’s surface.
When PPE is not stored so that it can dry quickly and completely, this combination of moisture and contaminants can work its way deeper into the protective fabric. If not dried completely before the next exposure to water, the presence of existing moisture and contaminants will help the new moisture and contaminants pass into the fabric.
3. Let the PPE breathe
When firefighters are enveloped in smoke and fire gases, microscopic-sized soot particles — which can be as small as a hundredth of a micron, making the particles invisible except when concentrated in a smoke cloud — and fire gases permeate the fabric. They also get into the interior portions of the structural ensemble through areas such as the hood, pant legs and coat-to-pant overlap.
Hanging the protective coat, trousers and hood with adequate airflow in and around the gear allows absorbed gaseous toxic materials to release from the fabric, that is, off-gas.
4. Keep PPE in the dark
OK, maybe that’s not practical. But it is important to minimize PPE’s exposure to UV rays when being stored in the station. Direct sunlight is the main culprit, but prolonged exposure to the UV rays from high-intensity fluorescent lighting may also have a damaging effect on PPE fabrics.
For many fire departments it is normal to store firefighter PPE in the station’s apparatus bay, particularly for volunteer-staffed departments, to facilitate rapid access when a call comes in.
While many fire departments have invested in steel mesh rack or locker systems and placed them in the apparatus bay, if not properly protected, PPE is still exposed to light and surface contamination. One way to protect against this is to use fitted synthetic fabric locker covers with quick-release Velcro fasteners.
If each firefighter is not provided with specially designed hangers for coats, gloves and pants to promote free circulation of air for faster drying, then moisture, gasses and surface contamination hazards become a larger issue.
How DoD fire stations store PPE
The optimal solution is a dedicated space within the fire station to store PPE. The U.S. Department of Defense provides guidance and direction for construction of all military fire stations through its Unified Facilities Criteria. Individual services can then take that guidance and make it their own through a document such as the Facilities Criteria: Navy and Marine Corps Fire Stations.
That criteria outlines the requirements for PPE gear storage in Navy and Marine Corps fire stations. The basic requirement is that a well-ventilated locker be assigned to each member of the firefighting crew, with sufficient floor space in front of each locker for easy access during emergencies. Specific requirements include:
- Minimum ceiling height of 8 feet.
- Low-maintenance, durable wall finishes such as industrial latex or epoxy paints.
- Slip-resistant, sealed concrete floor finishes sloped to a floor drain.
- Provide open 24-inch-wide by 24-inch-deep by 6-foot-high wire open-mesh locker that includes shelves and clothes hooks. Lockers located alongside walls.
- Locker layout should permit free air circulation around and throughout clothing.
- Room must be provided with negative ventilation that exhausts to the outside of the fire station.
Not every department can design a new station with a dedicated PPE storage room or retrofit an existing area in their station. Across the board, commercially available turnout gear storage systems provide for the free circulation of air, which helps dry turnout gear faster.
These systems also provide for the proper storage for gear once it’s cleaned and dried. And they enable personnel to quickly access their gear when responding to emergencies.
So, where to start? First, do a good assessment of your station to determine where you need gear storage racks and how much space you have available.
Next, determine whether you want the storage racks mounted to a wall, freestanding within the station (no wheels) or mobile within the fire station (wheeled units). Each of the three types of storage racks has some very good points, but there is no one solution that will work for every department.
Individual compartments — regardless of type or manufacturer — for the various storage racks on the market come in widths of 18, 20 and 24 inches.
Several of the largest manufacturers have a useful wall calculator on their websites. You plug in how much wall space you have available, select the compartment width you want, and the calculator determines how many units can be installed in the available space.
Once you've identified the size and number of units, you'll have a choice of finishes. Most manufacturers offer their product with either a chrome finish or a flexible epoxy coating, available in a variety of colors depending upon the manufacturer.
Turnout gear storage system makers also offer a wide variety of add-on features that make their storage racks more versatile. Some of these features include:
- Lockable security doors, which can be installed initially or retrofitted.
- Electrical receptacles for individual compartments; this also can be installed initially or retrofitted.
- Lockable storage drawers for individual compartments.
- Fitted synthetic fabric covers with quick-release Velcro fasteners.
- Specially designed hangers for coats, gloves and pants to promote circulation of air for faster drying.
- Specially designed helmet stand to keep pressure off the helmet's suspension ratcheting system.
The purchase of turnout gear represents a substantial investment in the safety of your personnel. The turnout gear you've purchased will be fit for duty when needed and will have a longer life through a systematic approach to its care and maintenance, particularly how it’s stored between uses.