The question is often asked, "How long will my turnout gear last?" The answer is, "It depends on a variety of factors":
- The frequency of use, i.e. the number of times per week it is worn;
- The conditions to which it has been exposed (heat, chemicals, sunlight, abrasion, etc);
- The number of times that it has been laundered and the laundering procedures employed;
- The frequency of inspection and maintenance.
However, experience garnered over the past 15 years suggests that in an active fire department, turnout gear has a useful life of four to five years depending on the factors mentioned previously. Many departments keep garments in service longer than five years but often that gear is either not providing the level of protection needed or the cost of keeping it in service does not make economic sense.
Let's look at some of the key issues surrounding the longevity of turnout gear.
1. Moisture Barriers
Moisture barriers are the most fragile component in a firefighter protective garment and the component that has attracted the most attention over the past two years because of the Breathe-Tex problem.
1.1. Securitex Moisture Barrier Data
Between January 2000 and May 2002, Securitex tested over 1,500 used firefighter garments. This testing was conducted on turnout gear that had been in active service and had been sent back for repairs (approx. 90%) or for inspection (approx. 10%). As a result, many of the moisture barriers, or the garments from which they came, showed clear signs of thermal, chemical or physical damage incurred either in the line of duty or from improper maintenance. It was not possible to assess to what extent the failure of a moisture barrier was caused by any of these external factors.
Nonetheless, Securitex test data revealed that over 50% of the garments had leaking moisture barriers and that the average age of these leaking moisture barriers was 49 months.
It is, however, important to mention another important piece of the data. The majority of the leaking Crosstech? moisture barriers were suffering from a few pinhole leaks that could be repaired; the majority of the non-Crosstech moisture barriers--e.g. Breathe-Tex--had started to decompose and where not repairable.
1.2. W.L. Gore Literature
In one piece of its product literature W.L. Gore, the manufacturer of Crosstech?, makes an assumption that a Crosstech moisture barrier will last three years compared to two years for an alternative moisture barrier.
"While we may disagree with W.L. Gore on the need to replace a Crosstech moisture barrier after only three years --- our experience being that Crosstech moisture barriers are usually repairable during the first four years of their life --- we don't disagree that a significant percentage of all moisture barriers will exhibit varying degrees of leakage after three years." Our experience suggests that a Crosstech moisture barrier will most probably need to be replaced, rather than repaired, after 60 months in service.
2. Other Components of Turnout Gear
We've been talking about moisture barriers as if they were the only component in turnout gear that wears out. In fact, all turnout gear components and accessories wear out with time and use, for example: trim loses it reflectivity or melts; all fabrics lose weight and strength from wear, washing and UV, etc.
"Gear can often be repaired --- trim replaced, rips and tears sewn, leaking moisture barriers patched --- but it eventually reaches a point where either it no longer provides the protection required or the cost of repairing it is excessive."
3. Pros & Cons of Laundering
There is a consensus that regular laundering of turnout gear may shorten its useful life by 10% to 20% because of the loss of fabric fibres through the mechanical action of tumbling in a washer. On the other hand, it is recognized that periodic laundering to remove unburned hydrocarbons, biological matter, and ordinary soiling is essential for maintaining the health of the firefighter. As well, removing these foreign materials may extend the life of the gear thereby offsetting the loss of strength due to fibre loss. Therefore, even if NFPA 1851 didn't mandate periodic laundering, it would be a false economy to not launder gear in order to make it last longer.
4. Care and Maintenance
Regular care and maintenance of turnout gear, as prescribed in NFPA 1851, is key to ensuring that the protective clothing is able to provide the protection which is intended, or retired when it no longer provides such protection.
With a care and maintenance program in place, turnout gear should last longer, not shorter, than if it is ignored. The best analogy is a car or truck: regular inspections, oil changes, etc. ensure the performance of the vehicle and reduce the maintenance costs or replacement interval thereof. Similarly, one should retire turnout gear or a vehicle when the annual cost of maintaining it exceeds the average yearly cost of new gear or a new vehicle.
The short answer to the question, "How long will my turnout gear last?" is that in a medium to large city fire department, firefighter turnout gear should last an average of four to five years provided that it is properly cared for and maintained, and provided that it does not suffer irreparable damage in the course of firefighting activities.
Ross Cochran is the president of STX Protective Apparel, manufacturer of Securitex? and FireGearTM brand turnout gear. He is a registered professional engineer as well as a principal member of the Technical Committee of NFPA 1971.