Complicated Simplicity: PPE Care

This topic is paramount because of its impact on firefighter health and safety. As the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Protection Research Foundation report titled “Data Collection Summary for PPE Care and Maintenance” shows, only a very small number of fire departments have addressed PPE care and maintenance as they should. Far too many have ignored the issue, and those who have addressed it have done so without a complete understanding of what it involves.
Robert Tutterow   Robert Tutterow

In June 2014, the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.) held its inaugural Fire PPE Workshop, dedicated to PPE care and maintenance and NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Firefighting and Proximity Firefighting. It provided a clear indication of the intricacies of a total care program for PPE. On the surface, it all seems so simple. After all, what is there to cleaning something? As it turns out, firefighting PPE is a very complex assemblage of components that requires specialized approaches for care.

Certified to Inspect and Clean

Addison (TX) Fire Department Engineer/Paramedic Tim Tomlinson-also vice president of Gear Cleaning Solutions and chair of the NFPA’s task group on PPE cleaning-provided an overview of how personnel should inspect and clean PPE. He showed how to inspect and test moisture barriers for leakage and showed how a simple light test can determine if the thermal barrier has breaches that are not visible in ordinary light conditions. Of particular interest was his emphasis on understanding how to use washer extractors, drying systems, and cleaning agents. Many fire departments have purchased washer extractors from a local dealer who, while well-intentioned, has no idea how to program the machines for firefighting PPE cleaning or the appropriate cleaning agents to use.

Pam Kavalesky, senior project engineer with Intertek Testing Services, explained certification, verification, and verified independent service providers (ISPs). NFPA 1851 defines an ISP as, “An independent service provider verified by a third-party certification organization to conduct any one or a combination of advanced inspection, advanced cleaning, basic repair, or advanced repair service.” She explained the responsibilities of who can do what. For example, the user (firefighter) can only perform routine inspection and routine cleaning. The manufacturer-verified ISP, verified organization, and organization (fire department) can perform advanced inspection, complete liner inspection, advanced cleaning and decontamination, and basic repair. However, for advanced repair, only the manufacturer, verified ISP, and verified organization can perform this service. Fire departments are not provided this leeway unless the department is verified. As of this writing, the Fort Worth (TX) Fire Department is the only verified fire department in the United States. Last, but not least, only the manufacturer or a verified ISP can provide PPE care and maintenance training to a fire department. The process of becoming a third-party certifying agency or a verifying agency involves in-depth quality control measures.

Modifying PPE

Of particular interest to the Texas audience was a presentation by Bob Manley, Region 4 Compliance Officer for the Texas Commission on Fire Protection, which enforces NFPA 1851 compliance. The Commission primarily looks for cleanliness, damage, and modifications. One of the issues often overlooked in PPE care and maintenance is modification, or add-ons, to PPE. Any modifications to any element of PPE must have the manufacturer’s written permission. One Texas fire department was cited because it had sewn United States flags on its turnout coats without manufacturer permission. Although this may seem unpatriotic, the compliance officer had no idea what material was used to make the flag-i.e., it could easily have been polyester, which could cause a heat sink and serious burn injury. Nor did the compliance officer know what type of thread was used to sew the flag to the coat. Manley also emphasized the importance of not adding “decorations” to helmets.

The final presentation of the workshop was by Captain Fred Jandrucko, supply warehouse manager with the Fort Worth (TX) Fire Department. As the only verified fire department in the United States, this program underscored the detailed process and commitment required to properly care for PPE.

The workshop also included a presentation by Steve Lumry, battalion chief, Oklahoma City (OK) Fire Department, about details involved in conducting a line-of-duty death investigation, especially as it relates to PPE. It concluded with a panel discussion with representatives of the Plano (TX), Garland (TX), Denton (TX), and Fort Worth (TX) Fire Departments reviewing their processes and challenges.

Remember, firefighting PPE is life safety equipment-it’s your equipment, and your life and the lives of your family depend on it.

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.).

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