What about the concept of a personal protective equipment (PPE) warehouse on wheels to help address the problem of putting contaminated PPE back on the apparatus?
The use of a warehouse on wheels is not new to some fire departments. A few larger metro departments have adopted this concept for keeping their stations stocked with expendable items, such as cleaning supplies, emergency medical service supplies, toilet paper, and office supplies. A vehicle, such as a step van, is stocked with these supplies and makes a regular—typically weekly—visit to each station to replenish their supplies.
This application has merit for a PPE warehouse on wheels. The premise is that contaminated PPE should not be carried in the cab of the apparatus or in a personal vehicle in the case of volunteer firefighters. One of the typical responses to establishing a standard operating procedure stating that contaminated PPE should not be placed in an apparatus cab is that the crews must remain out of service until they return to the station to have their PPE cleaned or access their second set of PPE. Or, the department does not offer a second set of PPE for its firefighters.
The PPE warehouse on wheels addresses this concern. A dedicated vehicle, or maybe a trailer, is stocked with loaner gear and dispatched to a working fire. Firefighters can bag their contaminated PPE and immediately be provided with loaner gear while still on the scene. This concept could be adopted on a county or regional basis for smaller fire departments. It could work well for turnout coats, turnout pants, hoods, gloves, and helmet replacement inserts. Footwear could be a little more problematic, as sizing is more crucial. However, cleaning footwear while on the scene is more easily accomplished than with fabric PPE such as coats, pants, and hoods. Helmet shells can also be decontaminated a bit easier.
As mentioned, sizing for footwear creates a need for a modification of a loaner gear program. This might also be a concern for sizing of the other elements. Most sizes for coats and trousers are listed in specific inch measurements. For loaner gear, this could be softened to having men’s and women’s sizing on small, medium, large, x-large, xx-large, etc. After all, PPE as currently addressed in National Fire Protection Association 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, is outerwear.
The above described sizing issue has been further explored by some who advocate that PPE should not be assigned directly to an individual firefighter. In effect, all PPE would be like loaner gear. A firefighter would wear the PPE assigned to him until it needs cleaning, repair, or retirement. The firefighter would then be issued another set of PPE or a specific element of the ensemble and wear it until it needs cleaning, repair, or retirement. This idea is worthy of consideration, and if adopted, there needs to be a tight tracking system in place to monitor the location and condition of each PPE element. Another potential drawback to this idea is that firefighters might not accept that their PPE is not “permanently” assigned to them.
The PPE warehouse on wheels idea has its best application for working fires with multiple companies or departments working the incident. But, what about the single company or department response to a smaller fire such as a vehicle, dumpster, or food on the stove? The concept of a warehouse on wheels might be overkill for these types of incidents. One way to approach contaminated PPE for small fires is for the department to dispatch a smaller support vehicle to gather the needed PPE from the warehouse on wheels and deliver it to the scene.
Should a department adopt the warehouse on wheels, there should be a dedicated compartment or storage bin within the mobile warehouse to isolate the contaminated PPE from the clean PPE. The contaminated gear should be taken immediately to the location where PPE is cleaned, or in the case of departments using an independent service provider (ISP), the ISP should be notified immediately.
As the fire service learns more and more about the health risks of contaminated PPE and contaminated fire equipment, there will be various attempts to address the situation. It may take a few years, but eventually protocols will emerge that will become standard operating procedures. The PPE warehouse on wheels is a possible concept that should be considered. Stay clean.
ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Education Resource Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).