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What firefighters should know about NFPA 1851, 2020 Edition

The most significant changes to the latest NFPA 1851 edition involves the cleaning, sanitization and disinfection of firefighters' personal protective equipment


Sponsored by Globe

By Sarah Calams, FireRescue1 BrandFocus

Firefighting has changed a lot over the years. Today, firefighters use fire trucks equipped with various lifesaving equipment instead of relying on buckets of water or hand pumps. Because wool pants and coats are a thing of the past, firefighters' clothing now consists of top-of-the-line bunker coats, pants, boots, hoods, helmets and gloves.

Firefighting has drastically changed with the rise of synthetic materials, which call for evolving care and maintenance of PPE. (image/Getty)
Firefighting has drastically changed with the rise of synthetic materials, which call for evolving care and maintenance of PPE. (image/Getty)

Most notably, the fires themselves have changed. Present-day firefighters are faced with fires that burn hotter and faster due to the changes in everyday materials. Twenty years ago, everything was made of wood. Now, everything is made of synthetics – resulting in a drastic change of attack methods.

And, while this evolution was inevitable, firefighters around the world now recognize the need to keep their gear clean due to the potential exposures they face on today’s fireground.

Given these ever-changing conditions, fire departments must focus on the care and maintenance of their firefighters' gear – starting with the 2020 revision to NFPA 1851.

The history of NFPA 1851

Pat Freeman, compliance manager at Globe, has been a member of NFPA 1851 for over 25 years. In addition to participating in the NFPA process, Freeman manages the Globe lab, which includes certification, compliance and quality assurance. She has been with the company for 41 years.

NFPA 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting started out as a voluntary document that was put together by several organizations, Freeman said.

"At that time, NFPA had not yet begun to look at care and maintenance standards at all," she said. "They were focused on fire service product standards."

However, in 2007, NFPA began looking at care and maintenance documents for firefighter protective clothing standards, Freeman said.

Because NFPA standards are on a five-year revision cycle, the latest update to NFPA 1851 was issued on August 5, 2019, with an effective date of August 25, 2019. However, independent service providers (ISPs), organizations, and manufacturers who offer cleaning services are given 12 months after the date of issue to become verified to the new edition.

While there are many important updates to the latest NFPA 1851 standard, the largest change and focus of the standard has been on cleaning firefighters' personal protective equipment, according to Freeman. 

Importance of properly maintaining, cleaning gear

For example, the 2014 edition of NFPA 1851 used the term "routine cleaning." However, the latest revision replaces "routine cleaning" with "preliminary exposure reduction."

"The way to help yourself be safe is to make sure your gear is safe … that your gear is well-cared for and maintained … and that it's clean and able to do its job," Freeman said.

The new term expands on the techniques for reducing soiling and contamination levels on firefighting gear, Freeman noted.

"We've broadened it because it really is the first time a wearer gets the opportunity to reduce what firefighters are being exposed to and will continue to be exposed to until the gear is able to be cleaned," she said.

New definitions were also added for sanitizer, gross decontamination and cleaning facility. Additionally, the advanced cleaning, contamination, decontamination, disinfection, soiling and specialized cleaning definitions have been revised to reflect the updated changes to NFPA 1851.

"In general, NFPA 1851 is intended to establish basic criteria for selecting, inspecting, repairing, cleaning and decontaminating gear," Freeman said. "You've got sanitization of gear, disinfection of gear … and there are chapters on storage, retirement and test methods for verification."

There's even a new test method on how to gauge the effectiveness of cleaning – a new addition to the latest NFPA 1851 edition.

Proving the effectiveness of cleaning

The former edition of NFPA 1851 required cleaning once a year. Now, advanced cleaning has to occur a minimum of twice in a 12-month period.

"At least one of those times has to be in conjunction with an advanced inspection," Freeman explained. "And, the 2014 edition of the standard also required a complete liner inspection to be done on year three. The 2020 revision requires it to be done on year one and annually thereafter."

In addition to this, there's now a way to measure the effectiveness of cleaning. In order to be verified for performing advanced cleaning, you must be verified according to NFPA 1851.

To demonstrate the effectiveness of cleaning, the following eight steps are performed:

  1. A representative sample is prepared and sent to a laboratory
  2. The lab contaminates the sample with select chemicals
  3. The contaminated sample is then packed in a kit and sent back to the organization seeking verification of its cleaning process
  4. The contaminated sample is put inside of a surrogate garment
  5. The surrogate garment with the sample inside is washed according to the organization's existing process
  6. Following the washing, the sample is taken out of the surrogate garment, packed back up in the kit and sent to a qualified lab
  7. The lab analyzes the sample for different contaminant levels
  8. The lab provides results of how much of the contaminant was removed from the surrogate sample

Moreover, there's also a new verified cleaner category in the latest edition.

"In the previous edition, the only way you could offer Advanced Cleaning was to be a manufacturer or verified ISP," Freeman said.

But, because of the emphasis on cleaning, NFPA 1851 has come up with another category, allowing companies to perform cleanings.

"They can be a verified cleaner, which means they are not verified to do repairs or inspections. They are simply verified for cleaning using the same effectiveness of the cleaning method," Freeman said. "The whole intent is to give the fire service as many avenues for cleaning as possible."

Another significant change, Freeman said, is a revision in the standard regarding top loaders.

"The 2020 revision disallows a top-loading machine with or without a center agitator," she said. "It was determined that they're just not effective enough."

Instead, the revision states you must have a washer extractor for cleaning garments.

Understanding NFPA standards

Freeman said she always encourages departments to read the NFPA 1851 standard online – especially when it has been updated and always including the annex items – to help them gain a better understanding of many of the reasons why the standard says what it says.

"We highly recommend that readers, firefighters, users, consumers, anybody with an interest, should look to the annex of the standard," she said.

Although the annex information is not considered to be requirements of the standard, she said it does contain various suggestions and useful guidelines. But, more importantly, it provides much of the reasoning and logic behind the standard.

"Understanding the committee's thinking and where some of these requirements came from goes a long way to helping firefighters gain an understanding of why these things are important," she said.

At the end of the day, the standard, according to Freeman, is one more very important tool to help firefighters protect themselves.

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