Personal Protective Equipment: Friend or Foe?

March 1, 2005
Jim Swartzwelder tells why, if you’re not keeping your protective clothing properly cleaned and maintained, there may be something nefarious hiding inside your turnouts.

There may be something nefarious hiding in your turnouts and personal protective equipment (PPE). While we all embrace the need to keep our equipment in top condition, turnouts and PPE, the things closest to us are sometimes overlooked.

New and stringent guidelines published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) have focused particular attention on the need to keep our protective clothing properly cleaned and maintained. The NFPA 1851 Standard, effective in April 2001, establishes specific procedures that are needed to maintain the protective quality of the fabric and reduce the probability of turnouts and PPE becoming a conduit for heat, flames and chemical contamination. The standard addresses how you clean, repair and maintain records of your firefighter safety equipment. There are accredited cleaning and repair companies, fire schools and manufacturers that can assist in the proper procedures to help your department become compliant.

The fire service today is facing increasing challenges due to exposure to blood- borne pathogens, biological terrorism, hazardous materials and products of combustion. We must be more aware of equipment and PPE decontamination than ever before. Recent research has revealed that while “soiled” turnouts may be a badge of courage and experience, the buildup of hydrocarbons and grease actually creates dangerous flash conditions on the surface of the turnouts. These impurities also diminish the heat-reflective qualities we count on in mortally perilous conditions we face every day

And even more concerning, soiled and contaminated PPE can actually transmit carcinogenic materials to not only firefighters, but in some cases, their friends, family and loved ones. Hydrocarbons and carcinogens that are allowed to build up can be absorbed into the fabric where they defeat the purpose of protection and transfer their dangerous traits to underclothing and unprotected skin. There, they may be easily and unintentionally spread through casual personal contact and even via non-direct contamination when PPE are improperly stored, laundered at home or non-professionally cleaned.

This dangerous situation is easily resolved. There are over 20 accredited cleaning and repair companies in North America that are environmentally sensitive and can provide a biodegradable cleaner for cleaning high performance fabric used in your PPE. Many of these companies use a product called Citrosqueeze, a citrus-based cleaner that has been tested and proven safe by Dupont for cleaning Nomex, Southern Mills for cleaning PBI and Kevlar, W.L. Gore and Associates (Germany) for cleaning Gore-Tex and 3M Products for cleaning Scotchlite Retroreflective Firecoat Trims.

Not only that, there are accredited cleaning and repair companies that can assist fire departments, rescue units and EMS divisions in the development of programs to keep their PPE clean, maintain their lifestyle quality and comply with the NFPA 1851 Standard. These same companies are dedicated to creating a safer work environment for firefighters through awareness and education. They provide training seminars, and have programs and information to assist agencies in developing standard operating procedure (SOP) documents. Their staffs include fire service training, safety personnel and industry experts with extensive PPE knowledge. They can provide a higher level of safety for firefighters by performing maintenance in house.

These companies can also assist the fire departments in taking previously thought of unusable turnouts and economically refurbish them to meet the NFPA 1851 Standard. These turnouts can then be used as second sets or loaner gear. This refurbishment process can stretch a fire department’s budget while providing safe, clean PPE for firefighters.

Today, in many fire departments around the country, a determination is being made on how each individual department will accomplish their goal of meeting NFPA 1851. After being thoroughly trained in all aspects of NFPA 1851 and then training internal employees on the routines for in-department PPE cleaning, many departments are taking the direction of creating their in-house cleaning and repair program to provide their firefighters clean and safe turnouts.

Jim Schwartzwelder spent 29 years with the City of Poway, CA, Fire Department, retiring as a captain. Before that, he spent two year with the California Division of Forestry and three years with Federal Fire. Schwartzwelder is currently a safety officer on a U.S. Forest Service National Management Team and an instructor for state fire training as well as an adjunct instructor with Texas A&M for the NFPA 1851 program.

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