PPE Needs Preventive Maintenance, Too

By Chris Mc Loone

I’ve been giving personal protective gear (PPE)-specifically turnout gear-a lot of thought recently. I’m not sure why. It could have been the live burn evolutions we completed recently and reminding the crew to wash its gear as soon as possible. It might have been recently sharing what life was like at the fire company when I joined vs. what it’s like for the new members today regarding PPE.

Times Change

Back then, you had new gear if it was tan and old gear if it was black. As the newbie, I started off with black gear. It didn’t fit right. I stand at about six feet, three inches, but I’m a pretty lanky fellow, and I was swimming in that first turnout coat. The bunker pants were OK. They didn’t fit perfectly, but they were long enough to go over my second-hand boots that thankfully were size 13. This particular set of gear came with what most newbies today wouldn’t recognize at all-a Jones Snap key. My helmet was also a hand-me-down. It came from a firefighter who wasn’t very active and appeared to be a little offended that the lieutenant in charge of gear at the time handed it off to me. It was old enough that it did not have a crank on it in the back to adjust the size-also a sign that you were being issued older equipment. My gloves initially came with the gear and were used, but that was quickly rectified. Only a few of us had Nomex® hoods at the time. 1993 was the year, but times have changed.

These days rookies get a pretty new set of gear, many times not even at its half life. They get older gear first and are usually upgraded to new gear purchased for them within the first couple of years. Today when they start Firefighter 1, an instructor will inspect their gear to ensure it includes everything the fire academy calls for. If the student’s gear isn’t up to snuff, he will have to ensure it is by the next class session. Today this includes having a Nomex® hood-not a requirement in 1993 when I went through my first Firefighter 1 program. Helmet ear flaps were enough.

Besides reminiscing about 20 years ago, however, I have been giving a lot of thought to PPE care and construction.

Knowing Your Tools

Many of us could talk about a particular tool or apparatus forever-especially if we are part of the team to pick it out. Those of us on purchasing committees have the luxury of being intimately familiar most times about whatever we’ve picked out, and we’re very good about passing that knowledge to our firefighters so they can be as proficient as possible in using these tools. But, how many of us know as much about our PPE as we should?

PPE is as important a tool as anything we use for fire attack or other incidents. It is imperative that we know as much about it as we can. Most of us can state what manufacturer of turnout gear we don when the alarm bell rings. But, how many of us can say with any degree of certainty who produces the vapor barrier or what company provides the fabric? I certainly hope the purchasing committee that chose the gear can tell you.

Take the time when your gear comes in to sit down and read the documentation that comes with it. Learn about the standards it complies with. Learn about how it is tested for compliance. And, read about PPE in general to stay abreast of what is happening. You might be surprised to know just how much science goes into that coat you put on. Ever wonder why it is lighter than the first jacket your department issued you?

PPE Care

Finally, I’ve been thinking about PPE care. Any number of fire service leaders will tell you that keeping your gear clean will go a long way toward the health and safety of your firefighters. It seems pretty obvious. Go to a fire, clean your gear. But, how about all the calls you don’t go to? What about all the times that gear that’s near the exhaust pipe of the apparatus is exposed to the diesel exhaust? PPE can protect you in a fire. But, you are doing yourself a disservice if you don’t care for it and take the necessary steps to remove the toxic products of combustion immediately after a fire and routinely if your station doesn’t have an exhaust removal system. There have been myriad studies done on how contaminated gear can contribute to cancer-causing agents making their way into your bodies through your skin.

Learn about every component of your PPE and how to care for it so it is ready when you need it and so you are not unwittingly risking your own health and safety. Like any tool, PPE requires preventive maintenance to ensure it provides maximum protection.

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