When I first became a firefighter in 1980, people hardly ever washed their bunker gear. Week after week and month after month, coats and pants got dirtier and smellier, and that was just normal. If anything, dirty bunker gear was a badge of honor, that the owner had really seen some fire.
There were practical challenges to washing our turnout gear as well. We only had one set of gear each, and no washing facilities in the stations. You couldn’t afford to wash your gear and have it be soaking wet for the next shift. And since there was no place to launder gear in the station, the only real option was to take filthy bunker gear home and try to wash it there.
Fortunately, in this area, times have changed significantly for the better.
Gear and policy needs to keep firefighters protected
Over the years, much information has become available about the risks of failing to clean turnout gear on a regular basis. Fabrics and other materials retain not only toxic products of combustion but also chemical and biologic residue from emergency responses. These toxins may be absorbed through breathing as well as through skin absorption.
As a result of this reality, many if not most fire departments now supply all members with two sets of turnout gear, so cleaning a contaminated set never needs to be delayed. In addition, many departments have developed policies to limit exposure to emergency gear within the station (e.g., not allowing this gear to be brought into living spaces). Guidelines may also include policies against taking bunker gear home or storing it in enclosed vehicles.
Another improvement is that many fire departments now provide commercial grade laundry equipment in the stations that is specifically designed for cleaning turnout gear. This is the best solution as it makes transporting contaminated gear unnecessary. Some departments may contract with specialized services that pick up equipment, including bunker gear, to provide needed maintenance.
In 2001, NFPA published NFPA 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting. This standard includes basic guidelines for cleaning, repair and retirement of personal protective equipment. It has since been revised twice and is due for further revision this year.
One of the proposed revisions calls for “preliminary exposure reduction” in addition to routine cleaning. Preliminary exposure reduction refers to activities on the fireground to begin the decontamination process, which might include rinsing or dry brushing turnout gear while a firefighter is still using breathing protection, and isolating any contaminated gear.
SOPs for PPE maintenance
With all the knowledge of the risks, why would some firefighters still allow themselves to be exposed to toxins as a result of contaminated gear? Two factors may play a role.
First, firefighters need the tools and equipment to properly take care of turnout gear. They need a spare set so that cleaning activities can take place on duty, and they need access to washers and dryers specifically designed for this purpose. These things cost money, but departments must prioritize this expense as a fundamental necessity of doing the job.
Second, organizational culture and leadership must support the principle that bunker gear should be kept as clean as possible at all times. Although the risks of exposure are now well known, some firefighters still have the attitude that “it won’t happen to me” as they cut corners when it comes to maintaining personal gear. Leadership must provide positive example in this area and enforce clear SOPs for gear maintenance.
Years ago, I remember thinking how odd it was that we spent so much time washing and polishing the fire engine, but then wore our filthy gear in it. Which was more important, the vehicle you ride in or the clothes you wear? Thankfully, contemporary standards now acknowledge the importance of maintaining personal protective gear for firefighters.