The stated goal of the project was “to provide a data-collection summary of current practice and policies for fire service PPE care and maintenance.” The collected data came from completed online surveys from the fire service, including line firefighters, administrative staff, and those who served dual roles; independent service providers; and manufacturers. The survey covered PPE elements, including, coats, pants, helmet, hood, gloves, and boots. By design, these are the elements that NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, covers.
The core focus of the survey was to answer the simple question: How are fire departments and firefighters maintaining their PPE? In all, there were almost 90 questions contained in the survey that were directed to the core question. Other related questions included the following:
- How often are firefighters and fire departments cleaning their gear?
- What is the average time in storage of the gear?
- Are firefighters and fire departments using gear that was manufactured more than 10 years ago?
- What happens to the gear once it is “retired”?
There were 1,148 responses from the fire service with 49.4 percent of them stating they were line firefighters or officers, 19.6 percent stating they were staff, and 31.0 percent stating they were both. From the responses, a startling 25.2 percent admitted their department did not have any policies, standard operating procedures, or standard operating guidelines for the care and maintenance of their PPE. The result is even more disturbing when, for unknown reasons, 140 (12 percent) did not answer the question. It is a relatively safe assumption that the majority of those who skipped the question do not have a policy in place. Regarding if their policies were based on NFPA 1851, less than half (48.8 percent) responded yes, 22.3 percent responded no, and 28.9 percent didn’t know. Just over half the fire service respondents said that compliance with their policies on PPE care and maintenance was mandatory, 32.5 percent said it wasn’t, and 14.6 percent did not know.
Considering that PPE care and maintenance has been an issue in the fire service for the past 25 years, these numbers are truly puzzling. Are more than half of firefighters and fire departments cleaning and caring for their PPE without policies? Or, are over half of them doing nothing? What are the barriers-tradition, costs, ignorance? The more we learn about firefighter cancer, the more important cleaning PPE becomes. Dirty gear does not provide the protective properties of clean gear. And, as we continue to wear dirty gear, we increase the probability of cross-contamination of carcinogens to our fire station, our personal vehicle, our residence, and ultimately to our family and friends.
The fire service is continuing to learn more about dirty PPE. Improved methods of cleaning, drying, and storage have emerged, and a means of minimizing the exposure is evolving. For example, researchers tell us that one of the most vulnerable spots for carcinogens to enter the body is around the head. Based on this premise, I just learned that the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department immediately replaces dirty firefighter hoods while firefighters are still on the scene of a working fire. They bag the contaminated hoods and take them to a facility for cleaning, and the firefighters receive a clean hood.
NFPA 1851 does not have requirements for who should perform cleaning, inspecting, and repairing of PPE. It can be the fire department or an outside agency-i.e., an independent service provider. If using an outside agency, the agency must be “verified.” Verification is like independent third-party certification. Organizations like Intertek and Underwriters Laboratories provide the credentialing for an independent service provider or fire department to be verified. It is important to note that with NFPA 1851 (2014 ed.), all advanced garment repairs must be done by a verified independent service provider, the manufacturer, or a verified organization-i.e., fire department.
Adhering to nationally recognized standards is not to be taken lightly. It is noteworthy that the following appeared in the investigative report of the West Fertilizer Plant fire in West, Texas, that claimed the lives of 15 people, including 10 firefighters: “The lack of adherence to nationally recognized consensus standards and safety practices for the fire department exposed the firefighters to excessive risks ….”
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 Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).