The Importance of PPE Care and Cleaning

Robert Tutterow

Robert Tutterow   Robert Tutterow


In last month’s column, I reviewed the state of personal protective equipment (PPE) cleaning in the United States. In this month’s column, I will get into the “nuts and bolts” of PPE care and maintenance.


In June, I was fortunate to be involved in the inaugural Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.) Fire PPE Workshop at the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) Airport Fire Training and Research Facility. The location provided an excellent setting for an assembly of fire department personnel in a state where National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1851, Standard on Selection, Care and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, compliance is enforced by the Texas Commission on Fire Protection. The workshop included presentations on risk assessment, dirty PPE and cancer, handling a line-of-duty death, understanding third-party verification, inspection and cleaning, and a panel discussion of PPE caretakers in four DFW area fire departments.

1 This was a bucket of clean water before a set of turnout gear soaked in it for two hours following a room-and-contents fire.
1 This was a bucket of clean water before a set of turnout gear soaked in it for two hours following a room-and-contents fire. (Photo by Tim Tomlinson.)

Cancer Risk

Cindy Ell, executive director of the International Fire Fighter Cancer Foundation, captured everyone’s attention with a presentation on firefighter cancer. Here are a few of the highlights of her presentation. She stated that cancer is now an epidemic in the fire service. According to research, firefighters are 100 percent more likely to get cancer than the general population. There are more toxins and carcinogens present in the current fire environment than in the fires of previous generations. Male firefighters are 100 percent more likely to get testicular cancer than nonfirefighting males. They are at a 28 percent higher risk for prostate cancer. There is indication that female firefighters are more at risk for breast cancer and other cancers. All firefighters are at 50 percent higher risk for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And, there are increases in brain, colon, and thyroid cancers as well as melanoma.

The contaminants are getting into the body by ingestion, inhalation-don’t ever breathe smoke!-and absorption. The exposures are cumulative. It’s not just the “big” fires that are producing toxins and carcinogens. It applies to vehicle fires, odor investigations, dumpster fires, electrical fires, and on and on. It was interesting to learn that the parts of the body most susceptible to absorption are the groin and head-especially the jaw. The best ways to minimize these risks are gross decontamination on the scene followed by a thorough shower back at the fire station. Yes, all volunteer fire stations should have shower facilities so that firefighters can remove contaminants from their bodies before exposing their families.

It is also important that self-contained breathing apparatus face pieces be thoroughly cleaned after every use. Additionally, the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department now collects firefighters’ hoods following a working fire, provides the firefighters with clean hoods, and takes the contaminated hoods directly from the fire scene to the department’s cleaning facility. A final thought on protecting against skin absorptions is cleaning helmet head bands-an often overlooked component of the PPE ensemble.

PPE Cleaning

Addison (TX) Fire Department Engineer/Paramedic Tim Tomlinson, also vice president of Gear Cleaning Solutions and chair of the NFPA task group for PPE cleaning, provided a comprehensive review of PPE inspection and cleaning. He stressed the importance of documentation and record keeping. Fire departments must have a written policy on PPE care and maintenance and their PPE records should contain at least the following 11 components:

  1. Firefighter issued to.
  2. Date and condition when issued.
  3. Manufacturer, model, and design.
  4. Serial number (lot number if applicable).
  5. Month and year of manufacture.
  6. Dates and findings of advanced inspections.
  7. Dates and findings of advanced cleaning.
  8. Date of repairs, nature of repairs, and person performing repairs.
  9. The reason for cleaning and who performed the cleaning.
  10. Date element was retired.
  11. Date and method of disposal.

NFPA 1851 covers the care and maintenance of the following structural ensemble elements: helmet, hood, coat, gloves, pants, and footwear. Tomlinson stressed that PPE should not be inspected until it has been cleaned. Most departments are not aware that NFPA 1851 requires that advanced inspections be performed by the manufacturer, the manufacturer’s trained organization, a verified organization [as of this writing, the Fort Worth (TX) Fire Department is the only verified fire department in the country], or a verified independent service provider. The fire department must have a designated person who has had training in advanced inspection to manage the process. The element manufacturer determines the training level for this person.

Remember, dirty PPE may have reduced protective properties. It definitely provides a health risk to firefighters. The contaminants of PPE are easily spread to the apparatus and the fire station. And in many situations, contaminants can also be spread to personal vehicles and residences.

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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