By Robert Tutterow
In October 2019, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting (2020 ed.), was issued, replacing the 2014 edition.
This revision could be considered a cornerstone to much of what is happening in the world of reducing carcinogens and other harmful chemicals in the firefighting environment, including the clean cab concept and fire station hot zone design. Many of the technical committee members have been at the forefront of research into ways to minimize the risk of cancer. No other NFPA standard exists today with so much information on the subject.
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Personal protective equipment (PPE) is the biggest carrier of the harmful products of combustion to which firefighters are exposed on a regular basis. The contaminated PPE then lends itself to cross contamination. Paul Erickson, of LeMay Erickson Willcox Architects, is a pioneer in the subject of hot zone design for fire stations. He uses an illustration from farming that is most appropriate in describing this. He says that firefighters are “harvesters” of carcinogens. We “harvest” the bad stuff, put it in the apparatus (or sometimes our personal vehicles), and bring that back to the station (or our residence).
It is most important that the person responsible for PPE in each department has a thorough understanding of NFPA 1851’s requirements and why the requirements exist. It is also wise that PPE committee members at each department understand the requirements so they can make educated decisions on specifying, recommending, and purchasing PPE.
TERMS AND DEFINITIONS
NFPA 1851 (2020 ed.) is not an easy read, nor is it easily understood—at least as far as a user document is concerned. To meet the requirements of standards-based language, it has many definitions and references that are naturally difficult to comprehend. There are many terms used regarding PPE care that have similar but different meanings. These terms are frequently misused and can lead to a lot of misunderstanding. A sampling of the terms includes decontamination, gross decontamination, sanitize, disinfect, cleaning, advanced cleaning, specialized cleaning, verified cleaner, verified independent service provider, etc. You get the picture.
One new definition that must be mentioned is “preliminary exposure reduction.” The definition reads: “Techniques for reducing soiling and contamination levels on the exterior of the ensemble or ensemble element following incident operations.” This definition basically replaces the term decontamination, or simply decon or gross decon, while still on the scene. The committee created this definition because it more adequately describes the on-scene cleaning activity whereas decontamination, or decon, implies that the PPE is fully decontaminated, and that is not the case with on-scene cleaning. Fortunately, most of these definitions are explained in the annex and written in a manner that is more easily understood. The annex, included in the back of the standard, not only explains a requirement but often explains the “why” of a requirement.
NFPA 1851 (2020 ed.) contains a total rewrite of chapter 7, Cleaning and Decontamination. The technical committee was wise in placing a “decision tree” illustration as a tool to help fire departments select the proper cleaning procedure to follow. The decision tree shows a hierarchy of exposure risks and the best path to mitigate the risks.
The chapter is very specific in saying that contaminated or soiled PPE is not to be brought into the home, washed in home laundries, or washed in public laundries. Top loading washing machines are prohibited. There are specific requirements on overloading or underloading a washer/extractor as well as the pH ranges of the detergents to be used. In addition, there are drying requirements for air drying, cabinet drying, and machine drying; machine drying is permitted but is not the best choice.
A new requirement in chapter 9, Storage, involves eye and face protection. It says that eye and face protection must be readily accessible to the user but, when not in use, they shall be stored where they are not exposed to thermal damage, mechanical damage, or hazardous materials contamination. In effect, this means that externally mounted face shields and goggles stored on the helmet are not feasible.
Chapter 11, Verification, has also had a major rewrite. The emphasis is to make sure that organizations that clean and perform advanced repair meet the requirements. This is similar to third-party verification of PPE manufacturers. There are exhaustive requirements for verified cleaners and independent service providers.
The bottom line: If you care about minimizing the risks of cancer and other occupational diseases for you and the members of your department, get a copy of NFPA 1851 (2020 ed.) and attend conferences and classes where it is taught.
ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency EquipmentEditorial Advisory Board. His 40-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.).