For most fire departments, the days are long gone when firefighters would wear soiled, contaminated or wet turnout gear, either as a matter of necessity or choice. Most departments have facilities for cleaning personal gear, and many provide two sets of turnout gear for every firefighter so that cleaning operations need not be delayed. Several departments go much further with policies that dictate strict guidelines for transportation and storage of turnout gear.
NFPA 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting provides clear standards for the care and maintenance of personal protective gear. But when it comes to wildland gear, adhering to standards of care can be more challenging. Wildland firefighters are often deployed for weeks at a time to remote areas where laundry or proper storage facilities simply don’t exist. Some veteran wildland firefighters may still remember the blue-jeans-and-bandanna days of protective gear when on the fireline.
NFPA 1977: Standard on Protective Clothing and Equipment for Wildland Fire Fighting focuses on the design, performance, testing and certification requirements for items of wildland firefighting protective clothing and equipment. Beyond this standard, fire agencies still have considerable latitude in how wildland fire gear is cleaned, maintained and stored.
Los Angeles County PPE care
Successful management of personal protective gear depends on four factors: 1) ease of cleaning and maintenance, 2) access to spare gear, 3) regular inspections and 4) openness to innovation.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD) has a lot of experience with maintaining wildland gear, both for its urban firefighters who also do wildland/urban interface (WUI) response, and its dedicated wildland fire crews. Specifically, LACoFD relies on contract cleaning and repair services for structural fire turnout gear and for wildland gear of firefighters in fire camps. Structural firefighters who only use wildland gear occasionally are able to wash that gear themselves the same as a normal uniform. All firefighters, whether in fire stations or camps, have access to a second set of PPE at all times.
Proper storage is an important part of keeping wildland gear in top condition. LA County fire stations have dedicated lockers for wildland gear storage. Bagged gear is carried on urban fire apparatus when a firefighter is on duty. For those in full-time fire camps, gear is stored on response vehicles in dedicated storage boxes, says Battalion Chief Darus Ane. Firefighters in the field are responsible for inspecting their own gear weekly, but monthly inspections also take place, as well as comprehensive annual inspections of all equipment.
Likewise, for those in the fire stations, regular personal inspections of wildland gear are the norm, but there is also a quarterly inspection by the battalion chief, where all gear is laid out and gone over in detail.
Finally, an important aspect of safety with wildland gear is being open to change and new ideas. LACoFD Battalion Chief Al Yanagisawa reports that the department recently joined a Homeland Security development group, which was doing trials of different types of wildland gear. Through this involvement, the department chose to move from double-layer wildland gear to single layer, an approach that shows promise for reducing burn and heat injuries for operational wildland firefighters. This approach, which has been used by the U.S. Forest Service for some time, provides cooler clothing and a more ergonomic fit for wildland firefighters.
Keeping PPE in tip-top shape
Maintaining wildland protective gear properly may seem challenging due to complications of deployments. These challenges can be overcome when there is commitment to providing state-of-the-art equipment that is kept in top condition through cleaning and proper storage, and always having a spare set of gear when PPE may be compromised through damage or use.