Your PPE questions, answered: Tackling your webinar queries

Addressing the key turnout gear questions from the FireRescue1 community, one by one

By Jeffrey O. Stull

With ever-evolving information and research into toxic exposures, appropriate cleaning protocols and how long gear lasts, it’s easy to see why fire departments struggle to provide members consistent PPE guidelines.

In a recent webinar hosted by FireRescue1, “Your PPE questions, answered: Navigating evolving PPE changes and challenges,” I had the opportunity to answer several questions posed by the audience but did not have the chance to reply to all questions.

With ever-evolving information and research into toxic exposures, appropriate cleaning protocols and how long gear lasts, it’s easy to see why fire departments struggle to provide members consistent PPE guidelines.
With ever-evolving information and research into toxic exposures, appropriate cleaning protocols and how long gear lasts, it’s easy to see why fire departments struggle to provide members consistent PPE guidelines.

Here I will provide extended answers to both the questions I answered during the live event as well as other questions that I couldn’t address due to time limitations.

Question: With volunteer firefighters required to share their turnouts and SCBA facepieces, what is the proper cleaning and decon for the next user?

Any shared PPE must be cleaned after each use, whether contaminated or not. At the very least, used firefighter PPE, including turnout clothing and SCBA facepieces, should be subject to advanced (general) cleaning and sanitization to remove ordinary soiling, body oils and sweat, and potentially infectious microorganisms before being given to another firefighter. Advanced cleaning of turnout clothing means subjecting it to a washer/extractor-based laundering that should further include either a sanitization step or pretreatment (such as soaking with an appropriate disinfectant) as part of this process. Generally, SCBA facepieces can be washed by hand, simply using a mild detergent and a disinfectant. Any disinfectant should be one that is approved for use on the clothing or facepiece. Most gear manufacturers will supply recommended cleaning procedures, and may be able to suggest appropriate cleaning agents and disinfectants. If disinfectants are needed for potential pathogens, I recommend searching the EPA website for registered disinfectants for specific pathogens; however, it is necessary to ensure that the selected disinfectant is indeed appropriate for the particular PPE items.

Question: Does colors of gear make a difference?

Yes, in addressing garment outer shells, research has shown that darker colors do indeed absorb more heat energy, both during structural fires and under ambient conditions. This tends to indicate that slightly more heat transfer will occur during a fire event and that firefighters will become hotter when operating under sunny conditions. In contrasting black or very dark-colored material with light or natural colored fabric, the dying process itself can lend to slight weakening of the fabric. In some cases, this may mean that dark or dyed fabrics may tear or break open easier than fabrics that are of a natural color. However, it is important to point out that any fabrics that are used as outer shells and firefighter clothing do meet all minimum performance requirements, even if there are differences based on color.

Another factor related to black or very dark colored outer shells is the fact that darker colors tend to show less soiling than lighter colors, which can be advantageous for appearance, but disguise the fact that clothing needs cleaning. Soiling or soot contamination of fabrics, no matter what color, also contributes to greater heat absorption and potential transfer of that heat to inner layers. One advantage of colored fabrics is that when they are exposed to high heat, the dye will sublime, causing the fabric to revert to its natural state, which makes it easier to see heat damage.

Question: Is there an NFPA standard on wristlets/thumb tab?

NFPA 1971, in its current and prior editions, establishes design and performance criteria for wristlets used on protective coats. The wristlet is considered an interface component of the protective coat. As such, it is required to have certain strength and thermal insulation properties, though the requirements are less than the gear itself because of the overlap expected with gloves. Wristlet materials are required to be both flame- and heat-resistant. Protective coats are required to have a wristlet or other type of interface component that is permanently attached to the coat sleeve, and it is supposed to be designed so that it does not permit a gap in the thermal protection to the wearer. However, there are no specific requirements for how the wristlet or other interface component is designed. For example, the specific length of the wristlet is not established in the NFPA 1971 requirements. The supplemental, non-mandatory information on this requirement indicates that the purchaser should specify wristlets with either a thumb hole or bar tack creating a thumb hole for the wearer’s thumb in order to ensure that the wrist area remains protected when the wearer’s arms are extended. Some manufacturers use a piece of fabric to carry a wrist or thumb time for this purpose.

Question: What are the major changes in the 2020 NFPA update?

NFPA 1971, which sets the requirements for turnout gear, was not changed in 2020. The complementary NFPA 1851, which addresses the selection, care, and maintenance of turnout clothing, did undergo several changes that year, with much of the focus on providing more explicit information related to cleaning and decontamination of fire gear. One of the principal changes was to acknowledge that use of turnout clothing in structural fires, whether resulting in visible contamination or not, still warranted advanced cleaning. Another important change was the formal recognition of preliminary exposure reduction, referred to many as “gross decontamination,” was established as a first step in nearly every cleaning process for gear while on the firefighter and with the firefighter on air before exiting the fireground. Other major changes included verification procedures for cleaning and sanitization carried out by independent service providers and manufacturers of gear.

Question: Are there any sets of gear inspection checkoff lists?

While not quite checkoff lists, the Annex sections of NFPA 1851 do provide comprehensive lists for criteria that should be applied for the inspection of specific turnout clothing items for both routine and advanced inspections (found at A.6.6.2 and A.6.3.5, respectively). Some manufacturers provide specific inspection checkoff lists for their own products, which may be more useful given that these lists would be less generic and consistent with how the product is made.

Question: You mentioned the balance of the NFPA standards process. Can you comment on what percentage of the technical committee meetings attendees represent manufacturers and industry?

NFPA classifies individual members of the committee based on their specific interest category. These interest categories include manufacturers, installer/maintainers, research/testing organizations, enforcement authorities, special experts, users, consumers and labor. The membership of any committee cannot have a number of members in any one category that is more than one-third of the overall total membership number. Nevertheless, it is often observed that there may be more individuals from product manufacturers or component suppliers present at some meetings. There have also been cases where individuals representing users, consumers and labor are equally present in large numbers.

NFPA applies an open and transparent process in its development of standards. This means that specific interests must be declared for any representative on the committee, as well as asking individuals to identify their affiliation when participating. Committee meetings are normally run in a way that allows anyone in attendance to participate. Even with a large number of individuals from a given category, which may be relatively large, voting is entirely by the official members on the committee and not inclusive of guests. NFPA encourages participation from anyone at its meetings, but uses other controls to ensure that no one interest is over represented or out of balance.

Question: Does NFPA require routine cleaning from certified providers, or can PPE still be washed in in-house extractors? Is the certified cleaning provider required only when gear has been subject to certain contaminants?

If gear is exposed to unusual or difficult to remove contaminants, then specialized cleaning may needed.
If gear is exposed to unusual or difficult to remove contaminants, then specialized cleaning may needed. (Photo/Greeley Fire Department)

NFPA 1851 no longer identifies routine cleaning as a form of cleaning. Instead, NFPA 1851 refers to cleaning as either being advanced or specialized cleaning, which is generally preceded by on-scene preliminary exposure reduction. If a firefighter cleans their own gear, handwashing is not prescribed as a form of advanced cleaning for garments such as protective coats and pants. Instead, advanced cleaning should be carried out with an appropriate washer/extractor and set of laundering procedures. There is no requirement in NFPA 1851 that fire departments or firefighters need to be certified for this form of cleaning or that it be applied to certain contaminants. Instead, guidance information is provided in the Annex of NFPA 1851 for how to clean various items, including turnout garments. Handwashing is permitted for gloves, footwear and helmets. Recommendations are made for the washer/ extractor-based cleaning for detachable helmet textile components. If gear is exposed to unusual or difficult to remove contaminants, then specialized cleaning may needed. Even so, there are no certifications for how these procedures have to be undertaken.

Question: What is the theory behind only having an ISPs repair pinholes in moisture barriers found during an advanced inspection?

NFPA 1851 recognizes that firefighter protective, helmets, gloves, footwear and hoods can be repaired effectively and returned to service with confidence in their continued reuse given the application of appropriate repairs, and inspections to note any damage that warrants taking the gear out of service. Clothing that is subjected to multiple cleaning cycles and frequent use may result in pinholes being created in the film side of the moisture barrier, which is on the interior side of the garment liner. Such damage is considered repairable by the application of an appropriate sealing tape approved by the moisture barrier supplier to cover these holes. NFPA 1851 provides for advanced garment lining inspections where portions of the lining are subjected to hydrostatic testing that can readily reveal where these holes are.

The philosophy for allowing these types of repairs is based on practical considerations for maintaining the service life of the gear where no risk is incurred for protecting the firefighter when the repairs are carried out properly. In general, such repairs are only permitted by qualified organizations, which include ISPs and manufacturers but can include certain trained end-user organizations.

Question: Can you compare NFPA 1971 and EN 469?

NFPA 1971 is the standard used in the United States and some other parts of the world for defining the minimum certification, labeling, design and performance firefighter protective clothing that includes garments, helmets, gloves, footwear and hoods. EN 469 is the related European standard for firefighter protective garments only. Europe has other standards that address helmets (EN 16471), gloves (EN 659), footwear (EN 15090) and hoods (EN 13911).

While both the NFPA and European standards share a number of similar approaches for setting design and performance requirements, there are significant differences in test methodology and the way that requirements are applied to turnout gear. In an over-generalization on these differences, NFPA 1971 requirements are considered more robust, with higher levels of performance set relative to their European counterparts. Some argue that this is because firefighting practices in Europe tend to be less aggressive than those found in North America. Nevertheless, in actuality, this depends on individual country and regional practices. It may also be because Europe has simpler standards with some requirements more focused on higher levels of comfort or lessening ergonomic impact. The NFPA standards also tend to be more detailed and comprehensive compared to the European standards.

Question: In your opinion, what is more important in selecting gear – particulate blocking vs. overheating?

Particulate-blocking properties are important for both the materials and design of turnout gear, but do have to be weighed very carefully relative to any additional physiological stress that is imposed by the gear with these materials or designs. In order to block particulates from entering the gear, manufacturers mainly focus on the interface areas to minimize the amount of smoke that can enter through the coat to pant, coat to glove, pant to footwear, front garment closures, and hood areas. Some of these designs increase the encapsulation of the wearer, causing increased accumulation of interior heat from the wearer. Since the same interface areas can allow the exchange air from the inside to the outside for purposes of cooling, it is important for fire departments to recognize these trade-offs when selecting gear, particularly when both contamination exposure and physiological stress can be cumulative fire service hazards that lead to harmful health conditions. Due to increased attention being placed on preventing fireground contamination and consequent cancer-related diseases, some departments are attempting to better manage how their firefighters use gear with improved particulate-blocking capabilities, but ultimately the trade-offs must be decided by the department and may require some shift in operating procedures.

Question: Can you explain the NFPA 1851 maximum 10-year service life for PPE?

According to NFPA 1851, protective garments, helmets, gloves, footwear and hoods are required to be taken out of service once the item reaches 10 years after its date of manufacture (as displayed on the product label). There are no exceptions to this rule, and in fact, aluminized proximity outer shells are supposed to be taken out of service at 5 years from the date of manufacture (due to the earlier onset of degradation). This requirement is not based on a failed field inspection, but rather because the turnout gear items are considered to be beyond their appropriate expected service life. Expired turnout gear items can be used for non-fire training events but must be explicitly labeled for such a purpose. They cannot be used for anything else and, if not used, must be rendered unusable by being condemned and destroyed.

The principal reason for the 10-year service life is that 10 years represents two revision cycles of NFPA 1971, which establishes requirements for turnout gear. Over the span of 10 years, significant changes take place in the requirements that are applied to the gear as result of updated design and performance criteria, evolving product technology and improved test methods.

There are multiple other reasons for the 10-year service life:

  • Certain clothing and equipment components can age over time, regardless of use, resulting in increasing degradation of performance.
  • Replacement materials and components for older gear become more difficult to obtain since the industry often transitions to newer products.
  • It is becoming well-established that cleaning does not fully remove all residual contaminants and, as such, this contamination builds up over time and may increase secondary exposure to this contamination as well as diminish the field performance of the product.
  • There are significant limitations in the application of nondestructive tests that can be used to ensure that clothing and equipment continue to provide adequate levels of performance to ensure necessary protection.

Question: Why do some departments have flame-resistant station/work uniforms and others just have cotton uniforms?

Requirements for station/work uniforms are established by NFPA 1975. The base requirements for the products in this standard include general heat resistance and thermal stability, such that the materials used in the construction of these garments will not melt or drip when exposed to high heat. The standard offers the option for these garments to be flame resistant using the same type of evaluation applied to individual materials and components used in turnout clothing. Cotton represents a natural fiber-based material, which, while easily ignited, will not melt or drip when exposed to flame or high heat, making it a safer choice over synthetic materials, such as polyester or nylon that are common in several fabric blends used in many work uniforms. The minimum attribute is no melting and dripping. Since catastrophic failure of turnout clothing or deep heat penetration for specific areas of clothing can result in degradation of underlying uniform fabrics, this heat resistance and thermal stability is important. The flame-resistance characteristic of uniforms can also be considered important when firefighters wear their uniform in routine tasks where accidental flame contact can occur or for the more serious fire events when their turnout clothing is compromised.

Question: Are European-style helmets acceptable in the United States, and why are more of these helmets not being used?

European-style firefighter helmets differ from the conventional helmets used by most U.S. firefighters in that they are more like a motorcycle helmet in their design. These helmets are enjoying more popularity among some firefighters because they generally include integrated eye and face protection and have a more form-fitting design compared to the traditional (leather-like) and modern (smooth shell) helmet styles. As expected, helmets in Europe must meet requirements to European standards. Nevertheless, some manufacturers in the U.S. have been able to certify this style of helmet against NFPA 1971 and therefore would meet requirements for North America.

There are number of factors why individual firefighters or departments choose one style over another. For many, traditional-style firefighter helmets remain iconic symbol of the fire service so the transition to either modern or fuller head protection remains slow. Modern helmets tend to be lighter and more efficient in their overall physical head protection, but manufacturers have endeavored to create a range of products to satisfy multiple needs and preferences while still meeting the NFPA 1971 requirements.

Question: How do I tell if my clothing and gloves fit properly?

Proper fit of turnout clothing, especially gloves is essential for providing their optimum performance. Clothing or gloves that are too tight can increase the rates of heat transfer since the air gaps between the clothing work gloves and the firefighter’s skin are eliminate. These air layers are very important insulators to protect against heat exposure because they provide a lot of resistance to heat transfer. Tight clothing can also encumber movement and make certain activities difficult.

Similarly, clothing that is too loose can equally inhibit function, especially for gloves were dexterity, grip and tactility are important to allow firefighters to do their job. Firefighters must ensure that their clothing fits properly, and by fitting properly, this means that the firefighter can have an adequate range of motion and function.

For protective garments, fit, must also be demonstrated in the maintenance of full-body coverage, particularly in interface areas, such as between the coat and pants, gloves and coat, and footwear and pants. Overlap must be maintained at all positions of wearing. One way that this is demonstrated as for firefighters to crouch, crawl, duck walk, reach and bend while someone else observes that the clothing maintains its full coverage as well as the firefighter discerning how those movements affect their ability to function. One exercise that is useful for determining clothing fit is for the firefighter to squat while staying on the back of their heels and to raise their arms above their head. This position will often discern how restrictive clothing might be.

For gloves, firefighter should place specific attention on whether their fingertips extend fully into the glove fingers and thumb because large gaps will reduce tactility. Similarly, if the glove areas between the fingers do not seat down between the firefighter’s fingers, that can also affect grip and dexterity.

Firefighters should take an inventory of what types of activities that regularly perform on the fireground and go through those motions to ensure that the selected clothing provides the best possible levels of movement and function with the least amount of encumbrance.

Question: Are there issues with firefighter clothing becoming contaminated around individuals who have COVID-19, and are there special decontamination approaches that should be used?

In the early days of the pandemic, there was a large focus on contaminated surfaces where concerns existed for contaminant transfer by direct contact. Though the largest concern currently applied to disease transmission is by breathing in aerosols, contaminated surface contact is still a viable pathway for infection, when contact with contaminated surfaces occurs and contamination is then transferred to nasal or other mucus membrane areas of the body by being touched. For these reasons, the fire service should practice sanitization of clothing and equipment after potentially being in contact with individuals suspected of COVID-19, particularly during medical calls. Normal advanced cleaning of clothing combined with sanitization will achieve deactivation of any residual virus. Some very limited research on field disinfection methods show that the topical application of appropriate disinfectants can aid in reducing surface contamination; however, care must be exercised as to the application of disinfectant and whether that disinfectant can degrade clothing properties or cause later irritation from contact with the decontaminated surface with residual disinfectant. For example, dilute bleach solution should never be used for attempting to feel disinfect fabric-based turnout clothing.

Question: If our gear has been knowingly exposed to asbestos, what should we do?

Asbestos is a known carcinogen with an established link to a specific form of cancer. This cancer – mesothelioma – shows much higher rates among firefighters as compared to the regular population. Consequently, when firefighters discover that they may have been exposed to asbestos during a structural fire, special steps should be taken for the isolation and decontamination of the clothing.

Asbestos contamination can be determined through appropriate standard test methods where entire surfaces of the clothing can be fully vacuumed or wiped down with a subsequent analysis of the collected particles for the presence of asbestos. While this approach cannot guarantee all asbestos fibers have been captured, it can provide a reasonable understanding for the presence of asbestos on the clothing or equipment item. Often, departments choose to perform this type of analysis following any decontamination process to determine if the clothing is safe for use.

Recommended decontamination procedures for asbestos generally involve a presoak followed by advanced cleaning that is sometimes supplemented with additional rinse cycles. Departments must make the decision as to whether it will undertake these steps or condemn/replace the clothing. Additional details are provided in the Annex of NFPA 1851 for addressing asbestos contamination and decontamination.

Question: Some cleaning companies are touting the use of ozone or carbon dioxide dry cleaning. Do these processes work better than regular cleaning? 

Conventional advanced cleaning for turnout clothing most often involves the use of a washer/extractor, with an appropriate detergent followed by air drying. Some cleaning organizations or equipment suppliers make claims that their unique processes will be more effective in cleaning, whether for the removal of chemical or biological contamination. Any such claim should be backed up by demonstrated verification for removal of specific contaminants. The basis of these claims should be by way of demonstrated verification according to NFPA 1851 procedures specific to the process or cleaning agent.

In the case of using ozone supplemental to washer/extractor-based laundering, the general belief is that the ozone aids as a sanitizing agent for reducing levels of biological contamination since ozone is a known disinfectant. There have been some positions that further indicate that ozone use results in enhanced chemical decontamination. However, most the evidence does not support this claim because ozone can only affect certain chemicals. It does not have a universal effect for removing or neutralizing other chemicals that may be part of fireground contamination.

Another emerging technology is carbon dioxide dry cleaning, where liquefied carbon dioxide under very specific conditions can be used as a solvent in place of normal chemical solvents used in conventional dry-cleaning for the removal of both chemical and biological contamination. Like any solvent, there are limitations to how effective a specific chemical approach can be for removing a wide range of contaminants that firefighters routinely face. Therefore, the gross generalization of one technology versus another technology being better can only be established by supporting data that verifies cleaning efficacy.

The fire department should request this information for any unique cleaning methods. Additional inquiries should also be made as to whether the clean methods have any adverse impacts on the clothing, which can also be shown by measuring performance properties both before and after multiple cycles for which the cleaning process has been applied (generally at least 25 or more times).

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