Reviewing Changes In Turnout Gear Standards

There are major changes in the next revision of the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) 1851 standard.

Suddenly, 10-year life spans, total liner inspections, verifications, certification and reporting will be part of the new Standard on Selection, Care and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting.

 NFPA 1851, first issued in 2001, is a standard fire departments use in selecting, inspecting, cleaning, repairing, storing, testing and retiring the head-to-toe personal protective equipment (PPE) worn by firefighters for structural and proximity firefighting. It is a companion standard to NFPA 1971-Standard on Protective Ensemble for Structural Fire Fighting.

The second revision to the standard is effective this month. As an observant old fire chief once noted, the differences in fire protection as you go from zip code to zip code are amazing. NFPA 1851 is a great example.

Several fire departments have emb-raced the standard and comply fully. A few departments have made small steps toward compliance. However, far too many have ignored the standard.

As the observant chief further noted, you either “ride the current, or swim upstream.” For the “far too many” category, please understand that soiled and poorly maintained PPE poses undue safety and health risks to your firefighters.

If you think that dirty, poorly maintained gear is a badge of courage and honor, then you are being selfish and disregarding your family and friends.

While clean and well-maintained PPE won’t win a trophy in a parade, it should be treated with the same care and diligence as the shiny fleet in the apparatus bay.

The recent report of cancer among firefighters only underscores the need to pay attention to NFPA 1851.

Discussing Buzzwords

Let’s discuss those first buzzwords and phrases mentioned earlier. Yes, the next revision of NFPA 1851 requires that all PPE be retired 10 years after date of manufacture. This includes: helmets, gloves, coats, pants, hoods, and boots.

The committee thinks this requirement is necessary to rid the fire service of obsolete, poorly maintained PPE that poses safety and health risks. History has shown that the 10-year life expectancy is the maximum for functional use and technological obsolescence for gear that is seldom used.

This does not mean that departments should wait until PPE is 10 years old to retire it. Busy fire departments have found that PPE sometimes lasts only two or three years. Most metro fire departments are seeing an average life expectancy of no more than five years. Retired PPE may still be used for non-live fire training purposes as long as it is conspicuously marked as such.

There is yet another new fire service acronym, the ISP, or Independent Service Provider. An ISP is an independent third-party used by fire departments to perform advanced inspection, advanced cleaning or advanced repair.

Written Verification

Moreover, an ISP must have written verification from an independent, third party certification organization that it has the knowledge, skills, and equipment to perform advanced repair. Advanced cleaning and advanced inspection are conducted as needed but at a minimum of every 12 months. Advanced repair is required as needed. Fire departments can perform their own advanced inspection, advanced cleaning and advanced repair, but they must meet the same criteria as an ISP.

There are three tests required to comply with the total liner inspection clause in the revised standard.

The thermal liner is examined using a light test to determine if the thermal barrier is still intact. The thermal/moisture barrier composite must be tested for leakage using a mixture of one part rubbing alcohol and six parts water, and the moisture barrier must be tested for water penetration. Called the cup test, the moisture barrier is placed in a leak proof, clamped, horizontal position with 1 psi of water pressure applied for 15 seconds. These tests provide inspection without opening the liner.

As mentioned earlier, the new standard requires verification. The fire department or ISP must be verified by an independent certification organization for advanced repairs -to garments only. Helmets, boots, gloves and hoods are exempt from this requirement.

Third-party Certification

The independent, third-party certification organization must be accredited according to International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Guide 65 – General Requirements for Bodies Operating Product Certification Systems. The accreditation must be issued by an accreditation organization operating in accordance with ISO 17011. The certification organization must make at least one random/unannounced visit to the ISP or fire department per 12-month period. Most PPE items are currently certified by Underwriters’ Laboratories (UL) or Safety Equipment Institute (SEI).

If a fire department has an issue with a PPE item that has the potential to cause serious injury or death, the fire department must report the problem, in writing, directly to the certification organization and the manufacturer. A written response from the certification organization and the manufacturer must be requested within 30 days.

Report Problems

The committee is aware that equipment issues, though isolated locally, are common throughout the fire service and have not been reported to the proper agencies for correction. Regrettably, firefighters have lost their lives because common equipment problems were not reported to the appropriate agencies. Simply notifying your local salesperson or dealer is not enough.

So, what’s the bottom line? Fire departments need to budget and develop a program to comply with NFPA 1851.

Purchase a copy of the standard, read it and, if possible, attend a class about it. It is not a standard for manufacturers. It is a standard for fire departments.

The chapters of the standard include: Administration; Referenced publications; Definitions; Program; Selection; Inspection; Cleaning and Decontamination; Repairs; Storage; Retirement, Disposition and Special Incident Treatment; Verification; and Test Procedures.

It is believed that most departments will use an ISP to comply with the standard.

Compliance with the standard is an outward and visible statement about a fire department’s commitment to protecting its most valuable assets – its firefighters.

Editor’s Note: Robert Tutterow, who has nearly 30 years in the fire service, is Charlotte (N.C.) Fire Department’s health and safety officer. He is a member of the NFPA’s technical committees on fire apparatus, serving as the safety task force chairperson. He is also a member of the NFPA’s structural fire fighting protective clothing and equipment correlating committee.

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