By Robert Tutterow
Earlier this year, I once again had the opportunity and privilege to be a peer reviewer for FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grants program applications, a most fascinating process.
It almost defies imagination-a couple hundred of your peers donating time to the federal government. The process sheds light on the needs of fire departments across the United States. And, there are a lot of fire departments in desperate need of funding to adequately and safely protect their community and their firefighters. Peer reviewers are not permitted to discuss particular applications for grants, but I will say that the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 10-year rule for the life of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other fire equipment was a common denominator in the majority of the applications I reviewed.
NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, states that all “ensembles and ensemble elements shall be retired…no more than 10 years from the date the ensembles or ensemble elements were manufactured.” This includes helmets, hoods, coats, pants, gloves, and boots. This standard was referenced over and over again in the grant applications.
A bit of history. How did this 10-year rule come about? NFPA 1851, now in its third revision (2013), was first published in 2001. It was not until the second revision, 2008, that the 10-year rule was included. The substantiation was that there were far too many firefighters wearing PPE that was simply worn out and did not have near the protective properties for which it was designed and tested. The condition of PPE may be obvious or not obvious. For pants and coats, often the outer shell might look serviceable, but the thermal barrier or the moisture barrier (hidden behind the facecloth) might be totally destroyed.
The debate among NFPA Technical Committee members about how to address this issue was very, very long and thorough. Some members thought it should be fewer than 10 years while others thought it should vary among the elements. For example, some thought helmets routinely outlast the other elements. As in any respectful debate (not like the ones in which politicians engage), a consensus compromise was reached at 10 years.
Two NFPA Standard Revision Cycles
The underlying substantiation behind the 10-year rule is that it covers two revisions of NFPA 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting. It is thought that after two revisions there are enough changes in the design and performance requirements to justify PPE replacement. Keep in mind that the requirement does not guarantee a 10-year life. Unfortunately, PPE does not have easily discernable criteria for replacement like the wear-bars on automotive tires. I like to explain the criteria from a firefighter’s “career” perspective. By this, if a firefighter has a 30-year career (either volunteer or paid), then he will have gone through at least three sets of PPE. To me, this seems reasonable, even for rural volunteer firefighters if they have been actively training as they should.
Many of the AFG grant applications were for fire hose. Although the NFPA does not have a requirement to retire fire hose after 10 years, there is a strong recommendation. NFPA 1962, Standard for the Care, Use, Inspection, Service Testing, and Replacement of Fire Hose, Couplings, Nozzles, and Fire Hose Appliances, for the first time in 2013 set requirements for replacement criteria of fire hose. Although there is no requirement to replace hose after a maximum of 10 years, there are strong recommendations for fire departments to adopt a 10-year rule. To underscore this importance, one can make an argument that fire hose is life safety equipment just like PPE. A handline is a lifeline and a source of protection during fire attack. Likewise, supply hose failure can easily endanger firefighters just as depleting the air in a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) cylinder can.
The biggest issue in complying with the 10-year requirements and recommendations is funding. How do you get it? The answers aren’t easy and vary from community to community. However, a few thoughts might be helpful. It is surprising how many fire departments lack a formal resource management program. Such a program should clearly outline replacement criteria for all fire department assets. The program should also be constantly communicated to the community-not through scare tactics but through professional business marketing practices. One particular method that might be effective is to show the cost per citizen over the life span of PPE, fire hose, or other assets in your resource management program.
Good resource management is difficult and often not appreciated and supported. Having spent many years in resource management in both the private sector and a metro fire department, I know its challenges first-hand. I’ve benchmarked with many fire departments and have found good programs, bad programs, and nonexistent programs. That being said, benchmarking with other fire departments is an effective and inexpensive way to learn best practices in resource management.
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 Education Resource Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).