Firefighter protective clothing: Who should be cleaning it?

Numerous studies have shown that firefighter protective clothing picks up a range of highly toxic contaminants

Over the past 15 years, the fire service has increasingly embraced the fact that when it comes to health and safety, keeping protective clothing clean is as important as wearing the appropriate PPE on the emergency scene.

Numerous studies have shown that firefighter protective clothing picks up a range of highly toxic contaminants, some of which are known to cause long-term health disorders.

Further studies are attempting to understand the nature of these contaminants, but the conclusion from existing research shows it's important that turnouts be frequently cleaned and maintained in a clean condition.

Dirty clothing is no longer perceived as a sign of experience but rather the fact that the department or individual firefighters are simply not properly taking care of their gear.

The fire service created much of the early input for how firefighter protective coating equipment should be cared for and used. Groups such as CAFER, NAFER, SAFER, and FIERO pioneered some the original guidelines that became the basis for existing practices for properly cleaning firefighter clothing.

This work, supplemented by periodic research, has shown in greater detail how proper laundering can remove many contaminants.

The combination of this knowledge and fire service efforts resulted in the development of an NFPA standard for the selection care and maintenance of firefighter protective clothing (NFPA 1851). This standard continues to represent the embodiment of minimum practices for keeping clothing clean.

NFPA 1851 requires that firefighters routinely clean their clothing following structural fires or other emergencies where the clothing has become soiled.

Soiling can include a range of contaminants, such as soot and other substances that are encountered during the fire response.

Routine cleaning, as defined in NFPA 1851, involves the spot cleaning of turnout clothing in a utility sink.

These procedures essentially involve brushing off the debris deposited on clothing and scrubbing those sections of the clothing with a soft brush in warm water with a mild detergent.

Although this process may be effective in removing much of the soils, it not a complete cleaning of the clothing and, therefore, machine cleaning under certain conditions is recommended when the soiling is more widespread.

The responsibility for routine cleaning falls with the individual firefighter, but some departments have implemented in-house procedures where firefighters can either get their gear cleaned in department-based facilities or request that their gear be cleaned.

NFPA 1851 also establishes requirements for what is called advanced cleaning. Advanced cleaning is a more thorough and complete cleaning that is to be conducted using a washing machine unless specifically prohibited by the manufacturer.

Advanced cleaning is specified on an annual basis in the 2008 edition of the standard, but originally it was specified at a twice-a-year frequency when the standard first came out in 2001.

The change to single cleaning each year was apparently based on the fact that NFPA 1851 is a minimum standard and that for some departments one thorough cleaning was considered suitable.

However, NFPA 1851 also mandates an advanced cleaning following soiling prior to use.

Clearly, the advanced cleaning is a departmental responsibility. It is also a mandated practice through federal occupational safety and health regulations, because employers (fire departments) are required to provide and maintain PPE in a safe and usable condition for their employees (firefighters).

NFPA 1851 provides the framework for the execution of these requirements by establishing minimum requirements for how thorough cleaning is carried out, including who is qualified to conduct these cleanings.

NFPA 1851 dictates that the advanced cleaning be carried out by either a verified independent service provider (ISP) or by trained individuals of the fire department.

Independent service providers are outside companies that provide advanced cleaning as well as inspection and, often, repair services.

Verification is a process defined in the NFPA 1851 standard that involves a check of the organization’s ability to conduct repairs and successfully pass an audit of their procedures.

If the fire department conducts its own cleanings, then it is supposed to have individuals that have been trained by the respective manufacturer of the clothing to carry out the advanced cleaning of turnout gear.

The choice of deciding who cleans the protective clothing is not always straightforward. Several factors go into making this selection.

ISPs offer turnkey services, some with pick up and delivery of the clothing to the respective department's locations.

There are many organizations that have extensive expertise and experience in providing these services. On the other hand, in-house services may be more convenient, but they require resources for their proper management.

Both approaches require some accountability, which ultimately rests with the department. If advanced cleaning occurs more than one time annually, which it often does for any department that faces frequent fire calls, then provisions are needed to ensure that cleaning of clothing is provided in a timely fashion.

Ultimately, the clothing manufacturer has significant input into this decision because they have the responsibility for providing the training to the fire department, if that approach is chosen, but the manufacturer also makes recommendations for which ISPs are qualified for cleaning their clothing.

Some departments argue that they should have the final decision on who cleans their clothing, but manufacturers can claim that clothing warranties can be affected if clothing is not cleaned according to their specifications, which in fact NFPA 1851 indicates as an overriding consideration in this decision.

The right decision for which organization should provide advanced cleaning of turnout clothing must be based on the department choosing an organization that provides the best combination of proper qualifications with demonstrated capabilities for conducting that cleaning.

Right now, the committee responsible for NFPA 1851 is considering how these choices are made and what properly qualifies an organization -- whether fire department or ISP -- in conducting advanced cleaning in addition to other services related to the care of firefighter protective clothing.

There are debates on the freedom of fire departments making this choice, tempered with the responsibility that manufacturers have in making sure that the gear they sell is properly taken care of for ensuring its intended service life as based on warranty and liability issues.

Current practices for stating that manufacturers can provide whatever level of training they deem appropriate versus what some believe to be weak verifications procedures for qualify ISPs are being discussed in order to provide an equitable, but more importantly consistent approach in ensuring clothing is properly cleaned.

The good news is that firefighter clothing is being cleaned more frequently than once was the practice, and that there are options for how this cleaning can be carried out responsibly and effectively.

Yet the further development of fire service practices in qualifying which organizations provide this cleaning will only help the fire service practices advance for keeping gear cleaner and minimizing continued firefighter exposure to contaminants through their clothing.

Post Note – The next edition of NFPA 1851 will be open for public comment in late December through February 2012. Public comments may be submitted on line at through the tab on Codes and Standards, but selecting the "NFPA 1851" from the list of standards. Anyone can submit a comment on this standard during the open public comment period.

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