Roundtable: Regular Cleaning of Bunker Gear

By John “Skip” Coleman

Firefighting is a dirty job! One of my earliest memories of my father was the way he would smell when he came home from the fire station in the morning, that sweet smell of smoke on the extra set of clothes rolled up in his tomato basket.  My children also know the sweet smoky smell of “working fire” perfume.

That smoke that provided the sweet smell of fire contains a lot of “stuff,” and we are finding more and more out about the stuff that is produced in fires. Chemicals ending in “-ic” and “-ide,” among others, which are usually not good for the human body. Most if not all of these have cumulative effects on our health.

Some fire departments are taking extra measures to lessen the effect of these toxic chemicals on the body. In Toledo, we provided extractors to every station. To my knowledge, there is no “mandatory” requirement for their use, but they are there.

Other departments are taking a stauncher role. A major Canadian fire department is no sending a portable shower and changing area to every working fire. Members are required to carry extra uniforms, bunker gear, and underwear with them at all times. Members are required to strip, shower, and don new clean clothing prior to leaving the scene. All collected clothing–including uniforms and undergarments–are collected and extracted prior to being given back.

I remember reading an article online recently in which a firefighter from a large department was complaining that the city was issuing mandatory new helmets and he was upset that he could no longer wear his “sooty,” well-seasoned helmet. I wonder what “stuff” other than soot had collected on that helmet, and how much of that “stuff” entered his body every time he plopped that “good-looking” helmet on his head. I also wonder how many times that helmet saw the inside of an extractor. Egos (and the “stuff” on fire helmets) eat brains. However, if we required new firefighters to clean their gear like that Canadian department, I wonder how many days/years we would be adding to their lives?

That brings me to this month’s question: Does your department require cleaning of bunker gear on some periodic schedule?

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Skip Coleman: Firefighting RoundtableJohn “Skip” Coleman Fire Engineering; a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board; and author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997), Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 2008) and Searching Smarter (Fire Engineering 2011) and 2011 recipient of the FDIC Tom Brennan Lifetime Achievement retired as assistant chief from the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue. He is a technical editor of Fire Engineering.


Thomas Dunne, Deputy Chief, Fire Department of New York:

The FDNY requires each member’s bunker gear to be cleaned at least once a year. Schedules are established to ensure that the gear is picked up, cleaned by an outside contractor, and then returned to the fire house. All of our firefighters are also issued a back up set of bunker gear to be used when the original gear becomes contaminated or otherwise unavailable.

Like any experienced firefighter, I can appreciate the status of using “salty” fire gear with obvious signs of heavy use. However, our cleaning system has been in place for many years and is a far cry from a past system that occasionally led to company officers bringing their equipment home. Using clean gear–like using SCBA properly–gives us one more advantage in maintaining the long-term health of our firefighters.

Michael Allora, Deputy Chief, Clifton (NJ) Fire Department:

The Clifton (NJ) Fire Department received a grant award several years ago for a gear washer/extractor and dryer. The equipment was installed in one of our firehouses. Once installed, a procedure was implemented which detailed how and when our gear would be cleaned. 

Routine cleaning is performed at least twice a year. With six firehouses, the cleaning schedule is simple. In addition to the biannual cleaning, the gear can be cleaned any time it is deemed necessary by the company officer. 

We utilize an outside vendor for gear contaminated with blood-borne pathogens, hazardous materials, etc. The gear is bagged, tagged, and sent out to a local vendor who usually turns the gear around within 24 to 48 hours.

Freddie Fernandez, Deputy Fire Chief, City of Miami:

Our department has a policy on cleaning of bunker gear that requires proper washing on a regular basis. We have purchased the proper equipment for each station. However, compliance is not as good as we hope for due to logistical issues. Of primary concern is that we do not have loaner gear so members can wash their gear on duty.

One suggestion is to enter into a contract with a vendor who picks up the gear, provides loaners, and then returns the gear when cleaned.

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