Is it time to leave NFPA 1971 unchanged?

With the slowed evolution of PPE development, constantly changing the NFPA standard may amount to simply moving deck chairs around


It does not seem that long ago that a new edition of NFPA 1971, the standard that covers turnout clothing, was published. In fact, the current version has an edition year dated 2013.

Yet in the way the NFPA looks at standards, revisions often begin as soon as the last edition takes effect. Thus, the technical committee responsible for NFPA 1971 has just had its first meeting and is preparing to look at changes or corrections to the 2013 standard.

We have previously reported on a number of changes that were made for the 2013 edition. While the list may have seemed to include several changes, the actual effects on the types of products offered to fire service was relatively small.

Notable change
The vast majority of recent changes really had more to do with how tests were performed and clarifying existing criteria. One notable change was the addition of a stored-energy test that was primarily intended to address the potential for burn injuries from heated moisture that scalds beneath relatively impermeable exterior parts of the turnout clothing under specific fireground conditions.

Under NFPA 1971, this stored-energy requirement is applicable to externally placed material on the coat sleeves only. In response, each manufacturer has developed innovative ways to meet this new requirement by using different materials or incorporating additional layers of insulation.

Still, some question whether this change will have any real impact on firefighter health and safety.

There were also changes to gloves, primarily for adding new tests or modifying existing tests. Likewise, helmet face shields and goggles were required to meet new requirements for optical clarity and heat resistance, including meeting a parallel industry standard for eye and face protection.

Despite all these changes, the majority of the gear looks the same.

Interesting reactions
The industry saw some interesting reactions during the transition from the 2007 edition of 1971 to the when the 2013 edition became absolutely mandatory for all products being sold after the end of August. That was when manufacturers could no longer sell or produce any products that met the 2007 edition.

Each time a new edition of a standard issues, there is a grace period that permits manufacturers time to empty their inventories and get their products tested and certified to the new edition. This particular transition resulted in delays to a number of 2013 edition product certifications.

For example, there were no certified 2013 edition helmets until August. Likewise there were delays in several glove and hood products being certified to the new edition.

These delays were often due to industry, both manufacturers and testing labs, coming to grips the new test methods and criteria. Yet, it is our opinion that the products made under the new edition are not any safer than those produced under the prior edition.

This history becomes relevant when we start to think about what to do next. Turnout clothing continues to evolve and innovations do come around. But for the most part, the industry and its offerings have matured.

Evolution not revolution
New technology generally provides only incremental improvements, but we are not seeing advancements that significantly leapfrog current clothing in terms of demonstrating greater protection. If this is the case, and the fire service wants to continue with the types of choices that it has, one wonders what else can be done in terms of changing the NFPA 1971 standard.

At October's kickoff meeting for the new revision to 1971, the technical committee began its efforts by simply identifying possible topics that it should or could try to address in the future edition. If the process stays on schedule, that new edition would have a 2018 cover date and would issue sometime in late 2017.

The group also decided that, unlike prior efforts, it would consider changes in the companion standard, NFPA 1851 (for selection, care, and maintenance of structural and proximity firefighting protective clothing and equipment) at the same time, although that standard generally follows NFPA 1971 by about a year and was just issued this summer.

The majority of the committee efforts are dominated by addressing NFPA 1971, which leaves relatively little time left to deal with NFPA 1851.

As a result of the NFPA 1971 kick off meeting, a list of topics were identified by some members and briefly discussed. These include, but were not limited to the following questions:

Garments:

  • Should the Drag Rescue Device (DRD) remain mandatory and should it be made easier to deploy?
  • Are limits needed to set a maximum thermal protective performance rating?
  • Should more garment testing be performed under wet conditions?
  • Can garment liquid integrity be evaluated in a more meaningful and reproducable way?
  • Are there more systems-levels tests that can be applied to turnout gear, for example to address gear functionality?

Helmets:

  • Is there a need to assess helmets for levels of thermal insulation?
  • Can a nondestructive test be developed to assist in determining helmet serviceability?

Gloves:

  • Has the committee set the right trade-offs for hand function (dexterity) and thermal insulation?

Footwear:

  • Should different insulation tests be performed?
  • Are physical hazards such as puncture resistance correctly set?

Hoods:

  • Should hoods be provided in different sizes?
  • Is the fire service ready for hoods to include a moisture-barrier material, since all recent exposure studies say that most the fireground chemicals getting to the firefighter through contact with their necks?

General Care:

  • Are minimum annual advanced cleanings enough?
  • How can more details be provided on appropriate wash chemicals and decontamination approaches?
  • Should more precise requirements be placed on organizations cleaning gear to show that their process works and does not harm the gear?

Most, if not all of these questions, are appropriate. However, these are only the questions that arose from some individuals on the technical committee.

Get involved
The committee can sometimes operate and make decisions with limited input from outside firefighters and organizations. Some of this is because many in the fire service not understanding NFPA 1971.

For this reason, the committee is launching an effort to prepare a separate primer or educational document that would explain requirements and tests. This could produce information which would enables more fire service participation, particularly by explaining the history behind what is in the requirement.

While it may seem a relatively long time before the next standard issues, the time is actually limited. The public has until very early January 2015 to submit formal recommendations for changes to NFPA 1971 and one year after than for NFPA 1851.

Rightly so, NFPA is raising the bar to have changes and new requirements better verified to ensure that the revisions that go into a new edition are not only clearly stated and repeatable but also meaningful. This means that new ideas have to be identified earlier with the appropriate work undertaken to show that any new test or test change is reliable and relevant.

As always, we encourage our readers to participate in the NFPA process. This public-input process allows anyone to get ideas for changes to a new or existing standard into the system to be considered by the responsible committee.

This system is available online at the NFPA website and can be found by locating the specific webpage for the affected standard (accessed through “Codes and Standards” and “Standards Development Process”).

If that prospect seems daunting, we will help you — whether we agree with the issue or not — since we think that fire service members should have as much input as possible.

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