How to select new PPE: The basics

Proper and thorough risk assessments are critical when in comes to choosing personal protective equipment for your fire department

When I'm asked what the best structural turnouts are, my response is usually the same: "It depends." The conversation turns to what the fire department needs and wants the protective garments to do. It comes down to what the department's expectations are.

This is a very broad topic for discussion and over the next couple of columns I will offer some ideas on conducting a proper risk assessment.

PPE selection committee members, when asked what kind of turnouts they wear, often simply respond with the brand name of the outer shell fabric. And when prodded about the selection process and what the fire department expects the turnouts to do, the answers can be very puzzling.

In addition, many firefighters do not understand the limitations of their structural garments. They often believe that they cannot be burned in their PPE if it is not damaged, which is not the case.

A proper risk assessment brings many of these points into focus. In recent months I have been working with San Diego Fire and Rescue on the development and implementation of a risk assessment for structural garments.

The risk assessment begins with research. NFPA 1851 Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Firefighting and Proximity Firefighting is a good place to start.

Table A.5.1.1 lists potential fireground and other hazards and gives the department a place to start. At the end, the risk assessment will be a large binder that contains information on the process as well as supporting documentation for every decision.

A proper risk assessment must be the first step in the selection process for PPE. Departments should spend time in a self-reflection of how the department expects the garments to perform in various environments including structural firefighting as well as non-fire related incidents, and take existing SOPs into account. SOPs may actually have to be changed to reflect any new PPE.

A risk assessment for structural garments is a combination of several considerations including threat recognition, performance design, limitations, responsibility and training.

Threat recognition
I have divided the threat recognition into two sub-categories – thermal and non-thermal. The thermal threat is obviously where the fire department considers the potential fire exposures into the design of the materials used in the ensemble. This is where, for example, a discussion on the trade-off between THL and TPP would occur.

The non-thermal threat assessment would focus on daytime and nighttime visibility, the need for CBRN, ergonomics, pockets, enhancements, climate, existing stock, etc.

Each of these items that are discussed need to be properly addressed and a "Devil's Advocate" position should be taken, which allows focus to be placed on the cons as well as the pros. These results should be written and maintained with all supporting documentation.

Performance design and limitations
After the department has completed an assessment and the threat recognition research is done, a design specification is developed. One of the most important considerations during the performance design is to develop a list of any of the limitations of the potential design and how the department plans to address them. Every performance design comes with some limitations; once again, these limitations should be addressed in writing with supporting documentation.

For example, firefighters always like black turnouts. While there was a submittal to the NFPA 1971 Technical Committee to require all PPE to be in visible colors, that proposal was rejected because it was considered design restrictive.

The point that dark colored PPE may not be as visible at night should be considered a limitation. However, if other precautions are implemented, liability exposure can be lessened by finding ways to protect firefighters in dark clothing on the emergency scene.

It is a very good idea to develop a binder for this performance design process, and to search for any research that supports your position and explains the benefits of the direction that was taken. As I previously mentioned, take a "Devil's Advocate" position and document solutions to any issues you think may be associated with your decision.

Responsibility and training
After the performance design is complete, all of the participating groups must accept responsibility from suppression personnel, labor, and management to the highest governing body possible. The bottom line is that a proper risk assessment not only makes the PPE appropriate for the fire department, but it also lowers the liability risk exposure of the agency and the governing body.

Ownership includes making sure that there are appropriate SOPs to match the performance design, and proper training. The latter is a critical element in the risk assessment. It is not only commonsense, but also a legal mandate to train personnel on new safety equipment and that includes PPE.

Firefighters must be trained on the use, care and maintenance and this training must be documented. In addition to the normal training topics, personnel should receive training on the limitations of the PPE — something that is critical to firefighter safety.

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