Reviving Turnout Gear

The job of cleaning and refurbishing firefighters' protective clothing gets more and more technical all the time.

FOR many years, it has been recognized that turnout gear needs to be maintained in order for the firefighter to receive full benefit from the standards under which the gear was manufactured. Maintenance is required for both safety and economic reasons.

Properly maintained gear helps to keep the firefighter safe. Contamination (soiling) on gear may be both unhealthful to the firefighter and degrade the performance of PPE. The attitude of wearing "dirty" gear to show that a firefighter is macho has dramatically been changing over the last few years. What many people had not realized is what composes that "dirt" on PPE.

Potentially, firefighters may expose themselves to a wide variety of contaminants. Some of the problems associated with "dirty" gear are:
1. "Dirty" gear may conduct electricity.
2. "Dirty" gear may ignite.
3. "Dirty" gear may absorb rather than reflect heat.
4. Dirty" gear does not "breathe" as well as clean gear.
5. "Dirt" can weaken fabrics.
6. Reflective trim is less visible.
7. "Dirt" may add weight to gear.
8. "Dirt" may be hazardous to the firefighter and to the general public's health.

This "dirt" may consist of:

Acrylonitrile

Ethyl benzene

Polystyrene

Pentane

M/p xylene

Polycarbonates

Acrolein

Ortho xylene

Furan

Methacrolein

Nonene

Dimethylfuran

Hexane

Benzaldehyde

Fufral

Croton aldehyde

M-dichlorobenzene

Styrene

Benzene

Limonene

n.butane

Toluene

PCBs

Freon

Octane

PNAs

Pvc

2-fufural

Chlorobenzene

Polyurethane

In addition to the above chemicals, firefighters commonly can be exposed to:

Gasoline

Diesel fuel

Pesticides

Tar

Paint

Mineral Spirits

Insecticides

Creosote

Asbestos

Hydraulic fluid

Automotive oil

Body fluids

Other methyl ethyl "bad stuff"

   

It is generally accepted that the quantities of contaminants a firefighter is exposed to are small. However, how much diesel or gasoline on a set of turnout gear makes the gear unsafe? Not much!

Wear and Maintenance Issues
In addition to what substances are on gear, another important factor in keeping the firefighter safe is the condition of the gear. Turnout gear manufacturers do an excellent job of making high-quality gear to keep the firefighter safe. However, if the gear is in disrepair, all of their effort goes for nought.

Turnout gear is made for firefighters to go into extremely hostile environments. It is exposed to high heat, flame, rips, tears, and steam. The gear is abused again and again and still goes on ticking. This abuse does take a toll.

Following are common types of damage found on turnout gear:

Shells:
1. Rips
2. Holes
3. Tears
4. Broken vlosures (zippers, hooks & dees, hook & loop, snaps)
5. Damaged and loose trim
6. UV damage
7. Open seams

Liners:
1. Rips
2. Holes
3. Tears
4. Leaks (moisture barrier)
5. UV damage (thermal and moisture)
6. Seam tape loosened or off
7. Heat damage

Maintenance has another benefit: It makes gear lasts longer. With many departments facing shrinking budgets, maintenance of turnout gear can stretch their budget dollars. It does not make any sense to spend more than $1,000 for a set of turnout gear and then, from a lack of maintenance, allow the gear to become unsafe. It also does not make sense to retire gear if a $50 repair could put it back into service, but that is not an uncommon event. It seems that either the gear is worn in an unsafe condition or the gear is taken out of service for an easily repaired problem.

Turnout gear is made of several components. The structural coat and pant are typically three layers, shell, moisture barrier, and thermal liner. Each of these layers is composed of 10 to 12 different fabrics. In addition, there are several styles and types of reflective trim, snaps, hooks & dees, reinforcement material, rivets, hook & loop closures, and zippers. With all of the potential combinations, it is easy to see why inspections are vital to the well-being of the firefighter. All of these components need to be inspected regularly.

Other components of firefighter PPE need to be maintained, also. Helmets, hoods, boots, and gloves need to be kept clean and safe. All of these components can be cleaned, and several can be repaired, as well.

The NFPA 1851 Standard
The fire service addressed this problem and implemented NFPA 1851, "Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Structural Firefighting Protective Ensemble Elements." There was now the guideline for fire departments to follow when instituting a maintenance program.

NFPA 1851 has several components, including, recordkeeping, selection, inspection, cleaning and decontamination, repair, storage, and retirement. One thing that makes NFPA 1851 different is that it is a user document: These are standards for the fire department to follow. Previously in the PPE area, all of the standards dealt with the manufacturers and standards the equipment had to meet.

One of the important components of NFPA 1851 is a requirement that repairs done to PPE be performed by a "manufacturers recognized repair facility." Some manufacturers have initiated training programs for maintenance companies so a fire department can be assured the repairs meet the manufacturers' guidelines.

A critical part of this standard is its inspection criteria. Firefighters need to pay attention to their gear, because who knows better the condition of their gear? There are a routine inspection that is to be performed each time the gear is worn and an advanced inspection that is to be performed annually. The advanced inspection is a complete and through inspection of a firefighter's PPE. A primary benefit of these inspections is to find any major component degradation before the gear becomes unsafe.

In the back of everyone's mind should be the recent moisture barrier problems. These inspections can catch small problems before they become big problems. This is of benefit both to firefighters' safety and to fire departments' budgets.

Some departments have embraced this standard, and some departments have totally ignored the standard. Many departments have done what their budgets allow. Most departments need to rethink their budgeted funds and include turnout maintenance. Unfortunately, some departments have no budget for turnout maintenance.

In the past 15 years, PPE maintenance has dramatically changed as the job of cleaning and refurbishing firefighters' protective clothing has become more and more technical. Most of these changes have happened in the past five years. Sending your gear to the local industrial launderer or washateria for cleaning is not nearly as prevalent as it had been.

What's important is that fire departments need to verify the maintenance company they use meets the requirements of NFPA 1851.

This article originally appeared in the August 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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