How to inspect firefighter gear for damage

Fire departments have many approaches but one goal in applying NFPA 1851 to keep firefighters safe


NFPA 1851 is a standard for the selection, maintenance, inspection and retirement of firefighting personal protective clothing, including coats, pants, helmets, gloves, hoods and boots. The standard provides detailed guidance for how to inspect gear for obvious things like rips, tears and broken fasteners, but also for less apparent damage, such as loss of radiant reflectivity or delamination of turnout liners. The standard also states that “elements shall be evaluated by the wearer for application of appropriate cleaning level after each use.”

The goal of NFPA 1851 is straightforward: to maintain protective gear in a safe and usable condition, to identify and repair damaged gear, and to remove from service any protective gear elements that could cause injury, illness or death as a result of their condition. All firefighters can agree on these simple goals. But different fire departments might find a variety of ways to meet these goals.

For example, according to Assistant Chief Nicol Juratovac, the San Francisco Fire Department has a program in place where individual firefighters are responsible for inspecting and maintaining their gear on a daily basis. Battalion chiefs do a scheduled monthly inspection of all gear, and the assistant chiefs also inspect gear every four months. Routine cleaning is done in-house with extractor washers in the stations, but the department also contracts with outside services that pick up gear for more thorough cleaning and repairs.

The goal of NFPA 1851 is straightforward: to maintain protective gear in a safe and usable condition, to identify and repair damaged gear, and to remove from service any protective gear elements that could cause injury, illness or death as a result of their condition. (Photo/DoD)
The goal of NFPA 1851 is straightforward: to maintain protective gear in a safe and usable condition, to identify and repair damaged gear, and to remove from service any protective gear elements that could cause injury, illness or death as a result of their condition. (Photo/DoD)

Tubac Fire Protection District, Arizona, takes a similar approach, according to Chief Cheryl Horvath. She reported, “We contract for our PPE inspections and have recently trained two of our folks to conduct the inspections. As a small department, we do not have the personnel to do all the work in house. We do have extractors in our stations and started a hood exchange program recently.”

The Wolfeboro Fire-Rescue Department in New Hampshire takes a multifaceted approach to gear maintenance and inspection, according to Deputy Chief Thomas Zotti. This program includes regular inspection and washing gear in the extractor after every call involving smoke/contaminants. “We issue the fulltime staff two sets, the second to be worn when the first set is being cleaned,” reported Zotti.

Gear is automatically retired and destroyed after 10 years, which is the standard established in NFPA 1851. The department has a policy that firefighting gear cannot be brought into the living areas of stations or into members’ private homes. Lockers are provided for turnout gear storage in the stations.

In addition, Wolfeboro Fire-Rescue issues washable uniform coats for EMS responses that are kept separate from the turnout gear. “And we tend to treat gloves and hoods as more-or-less disposable,” Zotti said. “We will wash them, but if they start to show wear they get tossed and replaced.”

Recording firefighter gear inspections

An important aspect of NFPA 1851 compliance is record keeping. In addition to routine inspections and cleanings, the Onalaska, Wisconsin Fire Department has a program of annual advanced inspections, during which a detailed checklist is filled out and retained.

Items on the checklist include such things as:

  • Rips
  • Tears
  • Cuts
  • Missing hardware/closures
  • Discoloration
  • Hook and loop functionality

Damages are documented through photographs and forwarded to fire administration for recommended action.

The Tucson Fire Department has a comprehensive program to meet the goals of NFPA 1851. Guidelines for gear maintenance are included in a larger document entitled “Best Practices for Reducing Firefighter Exposures to Carcinogens.” This document combines research from the University of Arizona and other sources along with practical steps to safely clean, maintain and transport bunker gear.

The document includes photographs as well as a list of local resources to assist with general firefighter wellness. A number of the guidelines contained in the document were inspired by the “Healthy In-Healthy Out” work done by the Firefighters Cancer Support Network, Washington Chapter.

It has taken several generations for firefighters to fully recognize how important – and potentially vulnerable – their protective gear can be. Although they may perform inspections in different ways, all fire departments understand and embrace the importance of keeping their members safe through the proper care of the gear that protects them when it matters most.

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