In our last column, “Detailing the changes to PPE-focused NFPA 1851,” we announced the availability of the new edition of NFPA 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, which addressed updated requirements for fire departments in terms of selection, care and maintenance of firefighter protective clothing and equipment. That edition of the standard details how firefighter PPE is to be cleaned. The annex of the standard further provides guidance to help fire departments implement the new requirements. With that as the backdrop, we’d like to focus here on how departments can go about more frequent cleaning that is dictated in the new edition of NFPA 1851.
The need for greater PPE cleaning frequency
NFPA 1851 previously required fire departments to conduct advanced cleaning of firefighter PPE at least once a year, and indicated that clothing should actually be cleaned whenever it is soiled or contaminated.
For the 2020 edition of NFPA 1851, two advanced cleanings are now required each year, and protective clothing should be subject to advanced cleaning whenever it is exposed to products of combustion (e.g., fire gases and smoke particulates). This updated requirement will create challenges for many fire departments that currently do not have the resources to provide frequent cleaning of turnout gear.
Setting up advanced cleaning: Machine considerations
Cleaning of turnout gear requires either internal resources (in-department) or access to external resources (independent service providers or ISPs) or a combination of both. While ISPs can be used to accomplish advanced cleaning, that path can be cost-prohibitive, particularly to fire departments that have the need for frequent garment cleaning based on the number of structural firefighting calls.
Advanced cleaning subjects garments to laundering in a washer/extractor. This is a specialized laundry machine that is of a frontloading design and generally has a capacity of 30 pounds (of laundry) or more. Only washer/extractors can be used (as specified in NFPA 1851) because many types of new, high-efficiency machines use relatively little water that is incapable of adequately cleaning heavily soiled, complex clothing. Moreover, use of typical older top-loading machines with a central agitator are now prohibited since these types of machines have been known to damage turnout clothing and are also inefficient in their cleaning capabilities.
To be effective, machines should be of a large enough capacity to wash several turnout clothing sets after the clothing has been separated into outer shells and liners. Outer shells and inner linings are separated because washing the two parts together can lead to cross-contamination between the more heavily contaminated outer shell and less contaminated lining materials. Furthermore, hardware on the outer shell can cause damage of linings.
Other requirements apply to the machine as well. NFPA 1851 stipulates that the washer/extractor not apply a g-force of greater than 100 G. The standard further requires that the washer/extractor be programmable to permit multiple formulations. Formulations are the series of steps for the washing process that allow for adjusting the application of detergent, water temperature, water level, and types/lengths of individual cycles.
Several suppliers exist for these types of washer/extractors, usually marketing to industrial type end-users. Nonetheless, many of these suppliers have machines that recognize specific requirements of NFPA 1851 and include features aimed specifically for servicing turnout clothing, such as having preset formulations for different types of gear, like outer shells versus liners, heavy soil cycles, presoak cycles, and washing other items of firefighter PPE.
The main decision for departments is often capacity of the machine and where to locate the equipment. While wash temperatures are limited for advanced cleaning at no more than 105 degrees F, servicing water heaters must produce hotter temperatures. In addition, special considerations are needed for washer/extractor drainage, as the extraction steps within the formulations rapidly push a large volume of the water out of the machine.
Detergent selection and other advanced cleaning decisions
Another key part of the garment-cleaning process is the selection of detergent. Contrary to some industry claims, there are no “NFPA-approved” detergents. Detergents can meet the NFPA 1851 requirements when they have a pH in an undiluted form between 6.0 and 10.5. This information can be found on the detergent safety data sheet (SDS) but may also be printed on the product container. It is important that chlorine bleach, chlorinated solvents or regular solvents not be used on the protective garments without the garment manufacturer’s approval. Chlorine bleach and related chemicals cause deterioration of para-aramid materials that are a principal part of clothing outer shells and other material components.
As with washing/extractors, there are several available detergent and other cleaning products. Some of these products have been specifically positioned for cleaning of turnout clothing. In addition to meeting the above criteria, is important that the supplier of the detergent show information or experience that the repeated use of the detergent does not cause long-term degradation of clothing performance properties. It is important to beware of merchants that try to sell multiple cleaning agents for laundering turnout clothing because, in most cases, only a limited number of detergents or other cleaning aids are actually needed. A single detergent is sufficient for many departments, while in other cases, separate pre-soak agents, sanitizers and pre-spotting products can be used. Be aware of any products that are alkaline builders (meaning high pH) or sours (low pH products that bring down high alkalinity). If in doubt, ask for references or check with competent, known sources.
Responsibilities for who operates machines is another factor, as not all departments can have dedicated staff for this function, even if it is rotating or light-duty personnel. In addition, where washer/extractors are installed the individual stations, specific department training is needed for those individuals that will be operating machines. Washing of turnout gear is more complicated than doing the home laundry. Specific care must be taken to avoid damaging the gear or inadequately cleaning clothing, which essentially means the cleaning does not effectively remove soils and contaminants.
Typically, adverse effects of aggressive chemicals or cleaning processes show up on the garments as evidenced by labels that fade earlier than expected, damage to the reflective surfaces of trim, severe pilling (excessive surface lint), and loss of function for certain components, such as hook-and-loop closure tape. Where possible, it is best to use equipment, detergents and other cleaning chemicals, as well as processes (formulations) that have been demonstrated either by the suppliers or other departments with success.
Using independent service providers for PPE cleaning
There can be a lot of questions for when to use an ISP or if it is the right ISP for the department. Fortunately, NFPA 1851 makes the selection process easier since the standard requires ISPs to be independently verified. Verification means that an outside organization has determined that the ISP is following the NFPA 1851 requirements and has validated repair procedures. In approximately one year (beginning late-August 2020), ISPs will be verified for their cleaning effectiveness based on new requirements in the 2020 edition. Currently, cleaning procedures are only reviewed.
On the Intertek site, click on the link “Directory of NFPA 1851 Verified ISPs” at the bottom-right corner. This will lead to downloading a table with a list of the verified ISPs.
For UL, users have to sign up to enter this part of their website. It is free but it will require a password each time. Once registered, to search for verified ISPs, use the keyword “NFPA 1851" to pull up the multi-page list of verified ISPs. To get more information on an ISP, click on the file name (beginning “MH”) to the left of the ISP name.
While all listed ISPs are verified for cleaning, it is important that fire departments recognize that not all ISPs are equally qualified, especially for repairs. ISPs have to be qualified to work on specific moisture barriers, so it is important to check in the verification information that their specific turnout clothing is covered.
Lastly, just because an ISP is verified does not mean that it provides good service, including adequate turnaround time. Therefore, it is helpful to ask questions and get references. The annex of NFPA 1851 provides a series of recommended questions as a starting point to make inquiries (Paragraph A.8.4.1 on page 94 of the standard).
Instituting a successful cleaning program
There are many factors to consider when it comes to ensuring the capabilities for proper cleaning of turnout clothing. This column provides just an overview of some of the key factors. Further advice is provided in the annex of the new NFPA 1851, from fire departments with functional programs, from existing ISPs, many of which perform training for fire departments, and from other knowledgeable individuals.
The key is to ensure that capabilities – either internal or external – are in place to effect advanced cleaning.
The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of the sponsor.