Creating a Maintenance Program for Personal Protective Equipment

BY MITCH LOPEZ

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, incorporates common practices and procedures derived from the input of firefighting professionals, manufacturers, and industry specialists for maintaining personal protective equipment (PPE). This standard essentially is also a handbook departments can use when creating their own selection, care, and maintenance (SCAM) PPE program. Although the standard is a valuable document, it addresses only the what, not necessarily the how, of creating such a program.

This article breaks down the standard by function and gives examples of how you can implement a program. Not all aspects of the standard are addressed, and the coat and trousers are referred to primarily when discussing cleaning and repairs. The document and training will fill in the information gaps. The standard is so comprehensive that all its aspects cannot be fully addressed in an article; it would require a book.

BACKGROUND

NFPA 1851 has existed since 2001, but fire departments only recently have become familiar with its contents and have been implementing programs. NFPA 1851 covers every aspect of maintaining PPE, from inspection to cleaning and repair, in minute detail. It is an invaluable collection of information with which every fire department should become familiar and which should be used to implement a program for maintaining PPE, which is essential to firefighter safety and health.

This standard can be enforced through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) even if you are not in an OSHA state. It is mandated by federal OSHA, which applies to all states that haven’t adopted their own OSHA program. Beyond that, if your department were to become involved in litigation and the condition of PPE was a factor in an injury or a death, NFPA 1851 would be upheld as an industry best practice. OSHA can be understanding of a department’s budget or lack of resources, provided the department can demonstrate it is willing to comply with a plan of action.

TRAINING

Where do you start in implementing a program? As in all skill areas in the fire service, you begin with training. Attend a class on NFPA 1851, which is available through your PPE manufacturer or an independent instructor. These classes provide the knowledge and skills necessary to develop, implement, and manage a program for the care and maintenance of protective ensembles. In addition to increasing firefighter safety and extending the service life of your PPE, the skills learned will also benefit the organization financially; the department will save money by performing some services in-house instead of outsourcing them. The class will provide you with an in-depth introduction to NFPA 1851 and OSHA guidelines and methods for applying them to your department.

All department members will have to be trained in maintaining their PPE: how to conduct routine cleanings and inspections as well as how to report contamination or damage that will necessitate more advanced repair of the equipment. This training should also include an explanation of the various functions and limitations of PPE. You may be able to obtain assistance for this training from manufacturers. The training should be based on your department’s policy, which should reflect NFPA 1851 and OSHA regulations.

INSPECTION

Inspection criteria can be found in NFPA 1851; however, because of the complex nature of the inspections, your department should obtain hands-on training. The criteria will not be explained here, but it’s important that you understand the role these criteria play in the overall process. Advanced inspections are done annually; routine inspections are done after each use or a suspected contamination. It is up to your department to define “use.”

A trained member conducts the annual inspections, which involves breaking down and scrutinizing each element of the ensemble—but only noncontaminated PPE. Firefighters conduct routine inspections of their ensembles in the field or back at the station; breakdown is not required.

The inspections are important because they reveal damage and contamination. Ideally, regular routine inspections will identify equipment that needs to be cleaned, repaired, or retired before the firefighter suffers an injury.

CLEANING AND RECORD KEEPING

Cleaning must be done in a location that allows you to control the flow of contaminated and clean PPE. Contamination is defined as exposure to hazardous materials; body fluids; an immediately dangerous to life and health environment; or a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear agent. The decon area can be as simple as a closed-off section of the station or as extensive as a facility built to handle multiple ensembles simultaneously. Either way, the key is to properly clean PPE without exposing anyone to the contaminants.

(1) A decon room with extractor. (Photos by author.)

My department has a one-room facility that contains a stainless-steel sink, an extractor, and an air dryer. A contaminated ensemble is placed in a plastic box cart with a lid. It is then removed and broken down into its respective components, shell and liner, and placed into the extractor with similar components for advanced cleaning if it does not require a presoak or pretreatment. After cleaning, it is removed from the extractor, inspected to ensure cleanliness, and placed on the air dryer. Once dry, it is reassembled and returned to the firefighter or cache.

This process is performed by a member trained in NFPA 1851; he wears a smock and gloves when handling contaminated PPE. The cleaning is documented using Web-based software designed around NFPA 1851. The software isn’t required. A spreadsheet or handwritten document is suitable, but the software makes record keeping easier and provides the flexibility to update your records from any computer with Internet access.

REPAIR

Making minor repairs in-house can save the department the costs of a verified cleaning facility. A member trained in NFPA 1851 can make these repairs with the proper sewing machine and using the same materials and construction methods as the ensemble manufacturer. Section 8.2 of NFPA 1851 stipulates that repairs made within the department should be restricted to patching holes, repairing trim, replacing hardware, and reconstructing broken stitches in main seams up to one inch long. Repairs beyond this scope must be made by a verified independent service provider (ISP), and basic repairs should be performed by someone trained in NFPA 1851.

(2) A heavy-duty sewing machine is preferred for repairs because of fabric strength and thickness.

An ISP can conduct advanced cleaning and inspections in addition to performing technical repairs. It is a great resource because it has the expertise and an intimate knowledge of NFPA 1851. Become familiar with the ISP in your area; you will need its services at some point.

•••

The information presented here is a fragment of the information contained in NFPA 1851 and associated training classes. Financial resources and lack of physical space may be limiting factors in implementing this program. You can overcome these limitations with creativity, planning, and time. Build whatever facilities/props you can, research grants, plan ahead for future capital improvements that will provide the necessary space, and allow yourself enough time to get from start to finish by thinking in terms of years rather than months. Most importantly, don’t forget that however daunting this undertaking may seem, the program exists because it keeps firefighters safe.

MITCH LOPEZ is an engineer with the Highlands Fire District in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he has served for six years. For four of those years, he headed the personal protective equipment (PPE) overhaul program. He has been trained in National Fire Protection Association 1851, oversees the PPE needs for a combination department of 50 personnel, and assists mutual-aid agencies in maintaining their PPE.

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