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A look back at the most important changes to NFPA 1851 that every firefighter should know

This crash course has everything you need to know on how the standard has evolved since 2001

Sponsored by Globe

By Robert Avsec, FireRescue1 BrandFocus Staff

 It has been just over 18 years since the first edition of NFPA 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting was published. This new user standard established requirements for the selection, care, and maintenance of firefighting protective ensembles to reduce health and safety risks associated with improper maintenance, contamination, or damage and has continued to evolve over the years.

NFPA 1851 may only be 18-years old, but in that time has become one of the more valuable and insightful standards in the NFPA catalog of standards.
NFPA 1851 may only be 18-years old, but in that time has become one of the more valuable and insightful standards in the NFPA catalog of standards. (image/Globe)

That first edition of NFPA 1851 was basically written for fire service organizations as a standard for evaluating the risks that emergency responders face and their needs for protective ensembles. The protective ensemble elements are defined as coats, trousers, coveralls, helmets, gloves, footwear, and interface components. 

“It was also intended to help fire departments develop purchase specifications and purchase structural firefighting ensembles,” said Pat Freeman, compliance manager at Globe. “It was really written for the end-users and, as the title would suggest, the goal was the selection, care, and maintenance of firefighting protective ensembles.”

Looking back at the pre-NFPA 1851 days

Before there was the first edition of NFPA 1851 there was a document of recommendations released by Southern Area Fire Equipment Research (SAFER,) Northern Area Fire Equipment Research (NAFER,) Central Area Fire Equipment Research (CAFER) and Fire Industry Education Resource Organization (FIERO,) according to Freeman.

And she should know. She was there and part of the committee that developed these recommendations.

“These organizations got together with a group of interested firefighters and PPE manufacturers and suppliers who formed a committee that started developing this document,” said Freeman. “It actually took 18 months and while it wasn’t an official standard, it was definitely the precursor for 1851.”

The document, “PPE Care and Use Guidelines,” was published in 1994 and was copyrighted. Back then, it was used by fire departments, manufacturers, distributors, and interested parties until the first edition of NFPA 1851 in 2001. Many of those same committee members participated in the development of that first edition of NFPA 1851, Freeman added.

That first edition of NFPA 1851 incorporated much of the information and guidelines from “PPE Care and Use Guidelines” and remained in effect until it was replaced by the 2008 revision of the standard. (Normally, NFPA standards are revised on a five-year cycle, but that was not the case with NFPA 1851).

The 2008 Edition of NFPA 1851: What changed

According to Freeman, the obvious change from the 2001 edition to the 2008 edition was a complete reformatting that brought NFPA 1851 in line with how NFPA organizes and formats its standards.

From a content perspective, Freeman felt that one of the more significant changes in the 2008 edition was the addition of the requirement that advanced cleaning of PPE takes place at the time of advanced inspection if the PPE hadn’t undergone advanced cleaning in the previous 12 months.

“The 2008 edition added the requirement that advanced cleaning is done by a verified trained independent service provider (ISP) or by the organization's trained personnel and the training was required to have come from the element manufacturer or from a verified ISP,” said Freeman. “It also required written documentation of that training.”

Another change was in the cleaning chapter of 1851 [Chapter 7-Cleaning and Decontamination] which provided step-by-step procedures for washing and drying of every PPE element.

According to Freeman, the original 2001 edition of NFPA 1851 didn’t cover proximity elements, but as a sister document to NFPA 1971: Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, 2007 edition, the 2008 revision incorporated proximity gear requirements in addition to the structural requirements.

Some of the more pertinent additions and changes contained in the 2008 revisions to the advanced inspection requirements in NFPA 1851, according to Freeman, were found in the advanced inspection chapter and included:

  • A light degradation test of the thermal liner
  • A leakage evaluation test for the moisture barrier
  • A complete liner inspection test which was required to be performed at a minimum after 3 years in service and then annually thereafter, or whenever advanced inspections indicated that a problem might exist.

But perhaps the biggest change in the 2008 edition of NFPA 1851 dealt with the retirement of turnout gear.

A new mandatory requirement

“The NFPA 1851 Technical Committee actually added a mandatory retirement, and as you can imagine, it was the most heavily debated issue of that standard revision,” said Freeman. “The 2008 revision to NFPA 1851 set the first mandatory retirement date, for all ensemble elements, of 10 years after the date of manufacture with no exceptions.”

The 2008 edition also included the first mandatory retirement date for proximity gear elements, setting the requirement that proximity outer shells must be retired five years after the date of manufacture.

In Annex A, Explanatory Material, the Technical Committee for 1851 provided additional information regarding the retirement date for turnout gear elements.

“Even though this mandatory retirement was introduced, it did not mean that all gear could or should remain in service for 10 years,” said Freeman. “So, the annex did provide other criteria for retirement. We didn't want fire departments to think that just because there was a mandatory retirement [date] the gear should last for 10 years.”

“A lot of folks don't know or don’t understand, but the mandatory retirement that was added in 2008 was really driven by the fire service,” said Freeman. “We had people coming to the [Technical Committee] meetings saying that if we [the Technical Committee] didn’t ‘put teeth’ in the standard, brother and sister firefighters  will be fighting fires in gear that was no longer compliant and should have been retired years ago.”

According to Freeman, the 10-year mandatory retirement is also based on the normal five-year revision cycle of all NFPA documents. “Gear that is more than 10 years old would have been manufactured to a standard that had been revised twice and would certainly not meet current standards,” said Freeman.

2014 Edition of NFPA 1851: Expanding on PPE repair facilities options

The 2008 edition also introduced the verification of recognized repair facilities. The revised standard established a system of third-party verification similar to the product certification called for in NFPA 1971.

The verification requirement was meant to benefit the end-user and protect against any problems that might develop between a manufacturer and an outside repair facility. An example of such a problem would be a fire department that’s left with no options on where to get their PPE maintained.

The establishment of this independent verification now provides a fire department with more choices and a department is not necessarily tied to the facility recommended by the manufacturer of the gear.

“Another advantage of the program is that it established a consistency for ISPs because they were all now being held to the same standard in determining their ability to repair protective clothing,” said Freeman. “So, rather than obtain the name of a recognized repair facility from each separate ensemble manufacturer, an ISP or verified organization (e.g., fire department) would obtain verification from one independent source and it would apply to all of the same ensemble elements.”

One of the most significant changes in the 2014 edition of NFPA 1851, according to Freeman, was on the topic of ISPs.

The 2008 revision of the standard had both verified and non-verified ISPs. What set apart an unverified ISP from a verified ISP was simply the decision by a vendor whether to undergo the verification process. But the 2014 edition removed that distinction by introducing the requirement that a facility is required to be verified by a third-party organization in order to qualify as an ISP.

This added measure protected fire departments by ensuring that ISPs were indeed vetted to provide PPE repairs.

In the 2008 edition of NFPA 1851, there was no provision for an ISP to be verified for cleaning; any outside entity could be used if they followed the cleaning dictates of 1851. Under the 2014 revision, the only outside cleaning that can be done is by a verified ISP. An organization is still able to do its own in-house cleaning, without verification as long as it has been trained by a manufacturer of that element or by a verified ISP.

NFPA 1851 may only be 18-years old, but in that time has become one of the more valuable and insightful standards in the NFPA catalog of standards. It is also likely to continue to see changes with each five-year revision cycle as the firefighter PPE landscape – and industry research – continues to evolve.

A little bit of historical knowledge for where NFPA 1851 came from just might prove useful in understanding where it’s going and why. NFPA 1851 will continue to evolve and the 2019 revision is expected to be published sometime in late August. 

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