Here’s a thought to add to the current discussions and emphasis on cleaning firefighting PPE and on-scene decontamination following structural firefighting. What if we could get firefighters to think of their PPE, not as equipment or clothing, but rather as their protective exoskeleton?
We’re placing an increasing importance on collecting data about firefighter exposures to the chemical and toxic hazards present during structural firefighting, right? Now what kind of data collection is your department doing for the exoskeleton that’s far more exposed to the same chemical and toxic hazards as the firefighter inside?
Here’s why your department should be examining exposure to PPE – there’s much more to the decision to retire a set of turnout gear than just its age and appearance.
For guidance, let’s look at what some of those factors are, courtesy of NFPA 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, & Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Firefighting and Proximity Firefighting. Retirement criteria should be based on several factors including, but not limited to, the following:
- Overall condition of the item.
- Specific deterioration of materials or components beyond their economic repair.
- Ability to adequately remove hazardous materials and other contaminants.
- Age of structural or proximity ensemble or ensemble elements.
- Excessive soil buildup that could impact performance of the ensemble or ensemble elements.
A closer look at PPE retirement criteria
NFPA 1851 specifies that the firefighter protective ensemble or ensemble components must be retired from service no more than 10 years from the date the ensemble or ensemble component was manufactured – the date it was manufactured, not the date it was placed in service.
Fire departments can use various methods to determine when it’s no longer cost effective to repair turnout gear components. NFPA 1851 provides a sample calculator for use in determining turnout gear repair limits.
When it comes to deciding whether to retire an ensemble or one of its components, that decision should be based on the objective criteria provided in the form of field evaluations as outlined in NFPA 1851, Section 12.2 and 12.3.
One area that’s not given as much attention as necessary is the routine inspection of the protective ensemble’s components using the specifications listed in Chapter 6 of NFPA 1851, Inspections. Fire departments should rectify this deficiency if it exists for several reasons. First, it would better develop the individual firefighter’s knowledge and skills for the maintenance of the exoskeleton.
Secondly, when combined with a log for each protective ensemble (maintained by the individual assigned the ensemble), the department would have a more complete and accurate accounting of its efforts to properly maintain its protective ensembles and maximize their service life (a good fiduciary practice). Such a turnout gear log should be used to capture:
- Serial number of the ensemble components (where available).
- Date the ensemble components were placed in service.
- Dates of regular inspections following criteria of NFPA 1851, Chapter 6.
- Date of any repairs and who did the repair.
- Dates for machine washings and dryings for the ensemble.
Lastly, such regular inspections (ideally conducted monthly) could be beneficial in identifying problems early – when they might easily be corrected – or identifying individual ensembles or components that are tracking towards an early retirement.
Cleaning turnout gear is necessary, but does have long-term effects
In most fire departments, individual turnout gear is likely getting washed and dried on a regular basis much more frequently than in the past. And that’s good and necessary in our efforts to reduce firefighter exposure to toxic materials and carcinogens.
Time is going to tell what impact repeated washings are going to have on the longevity of protective ensemble components, particularly the coat and pants. One recent research study found that when fabrics used in commercially available firefighter turnout shells were laundered 50 times, all three of the test fabrics (meta-aramid, para-aramid, and polybenzimidazole) were affected.
The goal of the project, sponsored by the Fire Protection Research Foundation, was to determine whether Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) can be used as a non-destructive measurement technique to monitor the degradation of outer shell fabrics of firefighter turnout gear.
The report stated that this could have been the result of changes in friction and yarn structure, not necessarily fiber degradation; however, FTIR signal intensity was found to be influenced by laundering.
Migration of insulating material used in protective coats and pants is another aspect of possible performance degradation that could be noticed earlier through regular objective-based evaluations of protective ensemble components. Only with regular inspection and documentation will fire departments be able to know with any degree of certainty what impact the number of launderings has on those elements of those garments.