MAINTAINING TURNOUT GEAR

BY JEFFREY L. REED

Last year my fire department purchased a new tower ladder for more than $800,000. It’s a gorgeous truck, and the public is well served by its purchase. In the course of its lifetime, if we use this apparatus just once to save a life, it would be worth 10 times every penny we paid for it. Every week, whether we use it or not, we wash this truck to keep it in top condition.

As we walk into the fire station on Monday nights to go over the apparatus and its equipment, we go right past the racks containing our turnout gear—the gear that protects us from burns and other high-heat situations.

I want to impress on you the value of inspecting, cleaning, and maintaining your personal protective equipment (PPE). According to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Structural Fire Fighting Protective Ensembles, 2001 ed., we should be doing the following:

  • Section 5.1.1: Organizations shall provide a means for having elements cleaned and decontaminated.
  • Section 5.1.2: Soiled or contaminated elements shall not be brought into the home, washed in home laundries, or washed in public laundries unless the public laundry has a dedicated business to handle firefighting protective clothing.
  • Section 5.2.1: After EACH use, any elements that are soiled shall receive routine cleaning.
  • Section 5.3.1: Every six months, at a minimum, elements that have been issued, used, and are soiled shall receive ADVANCED cleaning. (That’s a minimum!)

NFPA 1581, Standard on Fire Department Infection Control Program, 2000 ed., states the following:

Section 3-5.1: The fire department shall provide for cleaning of the following:

(1) Personal protective equipment.

(2) Station/work uniforms.

(3) Structural firefighting equipment.

  • Section A-5-4.1: Clean protective clothing reduces health and safety risks. It is recommended that clothing be cleaned frequently to reduce the level of and bodily contact with contaminants.
  • Section 6-4.6: Structural firefighting protective clothing, gloves, station/work uniforms, and protective footwear shall be cleaned and dried according to the manufacturer’s instructions as needed and at least every 6 months.
  • Section 6-4.7: When a garment is contaminated, it shall be cleaned as soon as possible.

Basically the NFPA means, if you use it, clean it. It further recommends that when you take the garment off, visually inspect it, and “brush” off any visible particulates. But is that enough? And, do we even do that? As a contractor for one of the largest fire departments in the world, I see more than 500 sets of turnout gear each week. As I inspect some of the more questionable garments, I see other areas that require close inspection and have come to learn the areas that are more or less prone to damage.


(1) Typical breakdown of a neoprene liner system. (Photos by author.)

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(2) A liner ready to be inspected.

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FIRE STATION PROCEDURES

How can your department obtain some level of compliance with NFPA 1851 and 1581? More importantly, how can you protect yourselves from the contaminants and the damage they will cause in time?

First, if necessary, train all your personnel to understand the value of maintaining PPE on your next scheduled drill. When you have bad weather, conduct a PPE drill. Make sure your personnel know how to wear and inspect their turnout gear. If there are any questions about its condition, have them remove the gear from service and tag it to be looked over by a department member trained to inspect to a higher level or a competent service facility. Neglecting to maintain gear because it is needed in service is not a good policy.

Have some type of form available in each of your stations for the general membership. This sheet can serve as a reference for inspections and also as a written record of PPE inspection. The sheet should have an outline of the coat and pants so members can mark the area of the garments in need of repair. A copy of this form should be placed in the folder of the member assigned the equipment. Just as you do with your weekly truck sheets, use these sheets in case of damage and to document quarterly PPE inspection reports.

It’s no longer acceptable to have that “salty” look—that covering on your turnout gear consisting of debris from your past five jobs. Soiled areas of the gear should be rinsed down and scrubbed. After drying, the garment should be inspected.


(3) This garment has a port on the liner that facilitates inspection.

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(4) The liner is completely reversed for proper inspection.

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THE BASIC INSPECTION

A basic inspection has three major components:

Outer shell. The outer shell protects you from heat and direct flame impingement. Additionally, this layer provides protection from cuts and scrapes. Most of the newer outer shells contain KevlarT, which, when blended with PBIT or NomexT, forms a great heat resistance combination.

Moisture barrier. It allows sweat to escape from the garment, protecting you from moisture.

Thermal liner. This layer touches your skin; its function is to wick moisture away from the body, thereby keeping you cool.

In the outer shell, look for tears or burns. Any damage to the outer shell diminishes the garment’s ability to protect you in high heat or direct flame impingement. Look for fabric discoloration, which may indicate a spot where the garment has been subjected to high heat. Spots of this type indicate the need for further inspection. Look over all seams for openings and splits. Check the trim for burns, heat damage, or burned threads resulting from normal operations; the trim is usually the first part of the garment to become damaged. Finally, check all hardware and the closure. Check the self-fastening closures, especially at the ends of the sleeves and legs; reverse hooks; zippers; and snaps. Make sure to check the snaps or hook and loop fastener at the end of the sleeves and legs. If the coat’s shell is in great shape and your zipper pulls apart, what good is the outer shell?

Inspecting the thermal liner and the moisture barrier is quite simple. Look for burns and tears. Make sure the material is intact and in good condition. Some older liners were coated with a neoprene-type material. As the material ages, you need to look for wear (degradation of protection) in areas such as the crotch and armpits. You will detect such damage by noting that the white/beige coating has become delaminated from the material backer to which it was bonded. Repairing this type of damage is costly; the gear may have to be replaced.

Any burned areas on the garments must be inspected thoroughly—all the way through. Once a burned area has been identified, make sure the moisture barrier is safe for use. Inspect especially the unseen and more fragile areas. In my experience, such inspections have identified garments that were damaged and had the potential to jeopardize firefighter safety and welfare. After inspection, the gear should be cleaned with the liner separated from the shell, to prevent cross-contamination of the sweat on the inside with the carcinogens on the outside.

Washing

Many fire departments have a washer/ extractor. Use soap-and-rinse products. They work together to remove the dirt and detergent. If your washed gear has that citrus smell, it hasn’t been rinsed thoroughly. So what else remains in the garment? Remember this “dirt” is made up of carcinogens, which cause cancer. When you purchase a washer, you should test your water. It needs to be pH balanced, and you must determine the appropriate metered doses of soaps so members know how much to use for each cycle.

The gear must be washed in an extractor, a washing machine specifically designed to extract most of the water out of the garment. Once it is washed, hang the garment vertically to dry. The weight of the water in the garment helps keep it from shrinking. The outer shell should dry in about two to four hours, if hanging alone. The liner may take as long as 24 hours to dry. Be patient. Wearing wet gear could subject you to severe steam burns. The water remaining in your gear can turn to steam at a temperature as low as 212°F and cause first- or second-degree burns.

JEFFREY L. REED is a volunteer firefighter and driver with the Hillcrest Fire Company in Rockland County, New York, and an instructor at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York. He heads a company that specializes in the sale of personal protective equipment. Previously, he had been affiliated with a turnout gear cleaning and repair facility.

Inspect your gear after each run. No one knows your gear more intimately than you. If your want it to protect you, you must protect it.

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