Come Clean: Dirty Gear Is No Badge of Honor

Aug. 1, 2004
Every firefighter remembers reporting to duty for his or her first shift. You aren’t sure what to do, so you become a casual observer and follow the lead of the grizzled veterans. The real challenge for a rookie firefighter – beyond just hoping to impress the existing crew and fit in as part of the team – is learning to separate the veterans’ wisdom from their bad habits. The seasoned firefighters will tell you, for example, that “dirty fire gear is the sign of a real firefighter.” While the use of battle-scarred equipment may serve as a testament to a firefighter’s experience, it is also one dangerously bad habit we need to change in the fire service.

Dirty turnout gear is a firefighter’s worst enemy. By not cleaning and removing the byproducts of combustion from our turnout gear, we are creating our own exposure problem, one that we wear around our bodies. By not cleaning our turnout gear after continuous firefighting, the increasingly heavy soiling makes our gear a conductor of electricity and, when exposed to the right situation, ignitable due to these contaminants on the gear.

Imagine this for a moment: Take the 30 worst chemicals found at a fire. Place these chemicals in a bucket and soak your flash hood in it, then take this flash hood and wear it around your neck while you sleep or just go about your normal station duties. This essentially is what we do every time we place a hood around our neck while donning our fire gear. If this hood goes without proper cleaning for months, then we have a reminder of every fire we’ve been to during that time along with the hazards associated with being a firefighter.

Our business is dangerous enough without compounding that danger by wearing additional – and avoidable – hazards. Think about this: When you complete a dirty job, do you wash your hands? Try going a few months without washing your hands and see how popular you are around the firehouse. If you really want to impress your comrades, try another experiment: stop showering for a few months and tell everyone at the fire station that it’s the sign of a real firefighter. I’m sure this is the speediest way to secure a transfer to another station!

Simple turnout gear cleaning can begin with hosing off the gear after a fire. If your department has an extractor, the gear can be washed after a structure fire or medical call that caused an exposure to bio contaminants. Turnout gear cleaning should be based on a timetable or on the volume of calls. Set up a program for cleaning and inspecting gear on a routine basis.

Always follow manufacturers’ recommended instructions for cleaning turnout gear. Never use any type of bleach on turnout gear because bleach can destroy the protection that is woven into the outer shell’s fabric. A clean set of turnouts and proper care of the personal protective equipment will lead to better protection when it is most needed.

At the beginning of every shift, career firefighters generally perform a routine check of the equipment they will be using for the next 24 hours; volunteer firefighters perform this task on a regular basis as well, typically as part of scheduled work details. The process of inspecting and maintaining our equipment insures that we are able to serve the public. Now contemplate this: What is the most important piece of equipment firefighters use? I know some of you will say the apparatus or the hose are most important, and while those are good answers, it’s important to remember that the apparatus only gets us to the location of the emergency, and the hose is only good if we want to save the mineral rights to whatever is burning down.

The most important piece of equipment firefighter’s use is our personal protective ensemble. If we are to make a rescue, we must protect ourselves; if we are going to enter a burning structure, we must have our turnout gear on protecting our own lives. Our first job in the fire service is rescue, and without the most important piece of equipment, we can’t complete this duty.

After every emergency response and at the beginning of each shift, we should inspect our personal protective ensemble. Did the gear become contaminated from body fluids? Did we burn an area of the outer shell that will compromise the protection we expect from the gear? Did the gear become snagged or ripped? Damage to the outer shell of our turnouts can possibly mean damage to the vapor barrier, which increases the possibility of a steam burn. Excessive wear on seams and stitching can produce a tear during the exertion of trying to save one of our own.

If your department launders and repairs the equipment in house or through a private contractor, inspect the gear before it is sent out and when it returns. Sometimes, we become complacent and expect our gear to always be able to provide protection against the dangers that this profession throws at us, and this complacency is a bad habit.

Honestly, how long do you expect your turnout gear to last? This is one of the questions I always ask when teaching the Personal Protective Equipment Officer Course. I usually receive a variety of answers, with three to five years as the most common response. Then I ask, how about five seconds? Let’s say you are caught in a flashover. The fire delivers its most intense blast of heat and the only thing that can protect you for those few seconds is your fire gear. That point in time is when your turnout gear is your most important piece of equipment. Take good care of it.

Paul Wayne Powell, a firefighter with the College Station, TX, Fire Department, is a lead instructor for the NFPA 1851 – Personal Protective Equipment Officer Course and ARFF Training Programs at the Emergency Services Training Institute at Texas A&M University.


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