The future of turnout gear is about to be decided
Significant questions arise as turnout-focused standards are consolidated
Every five years or so, NFPA standards undergo a review and revision process to ensure they accurately reflect fire service needs and emerging technology. This is the case again this year, as NFPA 1971 on turnout gear, NFPA 1975 on station/work uniforms, NFPA 1981 on SCBA and NFPA 1982 on personal alert safety systems (PASS) formally enter their revision cycle, with the updates expected to be finalized in the summer of 2023.
What makes this revision cycle unique? There are transformative issues confronting the fire service within these standards. Plus, all four standards are going to be consolidated into a single volume – a big shift for the industry.
The bane and benefits of consolidation
NFPA decided that there were too many individual fire service standards to manage, and thus began a process two years ago to merge many standards that had similar topical areas. The ultimate goal: Reduce the approximately 130 fire service standards to one-third that number.
In the realm of PPE, this has included some sensible consolidations, like NFPA 1990, now home to all the hazmat PPE information – no longer spread among NFPA 1991, NFPA 1992 and NFPA 1994. In that case, a single responsible committee endeavored to update and streamline the requirements for the full range of hazmat and CBRN. The result was harmonized requirements and test methods that established a more manageable 143-page document, instead of the combined 236 pages of the preceding editions.
Specific to turnout clothing standards, the immediate benefits of consolidation remain to be seen, as this process is just starting.
The current plan is that the new replacement standard, NFPA 1970 (a newly numbered standard to prevent confusion with prior standards), will have a shared introductory chapter, reference list and set of definitions, but otherwise will have the separate chapters for each of the existing standards, including certification, labeling, design, performance, and test methods separately sequenced. This is intended to preserve the separate identity associated with labeling products to the existing standard. Products will still be identified as being certified to NFPA 1971, for example. This is also intended to ease the transition to a more comprehensive standard. After all, the new document will be the result of four separate technical committees trying to integrate a significant amount of content into a comprehensive specification on a complex group of products.
However, this approach may not achieve the potential benefits of consolidation where the entire ensemble – everything a firefighter wears for structural firefighting – is covered in one document with full harmonization of requirements at this first juncture. Moreover, the new NFPA 1970 will become an encyclopedia-like document, estimated to be over 300 pages long.
It is possible that the NFPA technical committees involved may attempt some harmonization in bringing the individual turnout clothing system standards together. Some possibilities include ensuring that the certification process used to qualify product and allow labeling to show compliance be made fully uniform among products. This aids the manufacturing industry, particularly for companies that make products addressed by multiple standards. It may also finally be possible that some of the common tests will truly be common, making it less expensive to test and certify products.
There are also some interesting opportunities that may occur as part of this consolidation process. Consider that station/work uniforms could be permitted, under special circumstances, to be part of the overall insulation provided by the turnout clothing system for purposes of protection. Consolidation of NFPA 1971 (turnout gear) and NFPA 1975 (station/work uniforms) could possibly make that conceivable.
Another possibility is to finally address the system as a whole, again with all the equipment in place. There is now the basis for full ensemble testing for garments, helmets, hoods, gloves, footwear, SCBA and PASS collectively to be evaluated for different forms of protection, interface effectiveness and interoperability. A new NFPA 1970 platform can permit this approach. Moreover, it also could lead to better consideration of integrated products, particularly for emerging electronic sensors and related equipment, to become part of the overall ensemble for future fire service use.
In this revision cycle, it is also expected that many new issues facing the fire service and PPE industry will be up for debate, with the potential for various updates to change the look and availability of turnout clothing-based products. For example, criteria related to contamination resistance and cleanability is now a central topic as well as improvements in demonstrating durability and finally addressing restrictive substances, such as PFAS, in meaningful ways. We have covered some of these issues in recent columns – “Gear expectations: Firefighters expect more from their turnouts” and “Is the fire service ready for a PPE shake-up?” – but there are also other key areas of debate coming up during the less-than-two-year period where decisions will be made on minimum requirements for turnout gear.
One example is whether particulate-blocking hoods should become mandatory. Optional requirements were introduced as part of the 2018 edition changes in NFPA 1971 for firefighter hoods to provide for particulate blocking, especially since ample evidence had become available about firefighter neck and face exposure to smoke particulates coming through the normally two-layer porous knit hoods. A large part of the fire service has moved to these types of hoods, and additional research, including that conducted by North Carolina State University as part of a federal grant, has added to the information for the utility and performance of these products. The question is whether the fire service should shift to these newer products, now available from a wide range of manufacturers.
Further, there has been a decades-spanning debate about eye and face protection provided with helmets, typically part of face shields, goggles and various forms of retractable or flip-down visors. There are many opinions on this issue, but some advancements are being made in understanding product utility and protection, so it is expected that this issue will come up again with new angles and new proposals for attempting to mirror the true needs and preferences for firefighters.
Another controversial area is the mandatory requirements for drag rescue devices (DRDs) installed into the protective coat. This feature has been a mainstay of the NFPA 1971 requirements since it was introduced in 2007. Since that time, there have been few, if any, reported instances where the DRD has been used for the rapid extrication of firefighters. Many firefighters complain that under emergency circumstances, the DRD simply is not readily accessible and that there are easier ways to accomplish removing a downed firefighter from the fireground. In fact, the last edition of NFPA 1500 on general fire department occupational safety and health recognized in one of its use requirements that organizations should have standard operating procedures (SOPs) specific to rapid firefighter extrication, and the DRD was only one of the approaches that can be established. Still, there are others in the fire service who believe that unless the DRD is mandatory, it simply won’t be available to firefighters under emergency conditions. The question here is whether the DRD should remain mandatory or become an optional feature for which requirements are applied when present in the clothing.
Finally, there are some who argue that new metrics are needed to judge thermal insulation for protection as balanced against physiological stress imposed by the clothing. To this end, proposals for supplementing both thermal protective performance (TPP) and total heat loss (THL) are expected to change how the industry defines these characteristics. There are some firefighters who argue that the current system does not need to be changed, yet the TPP test itself is over 35 years old and the TPP requirement of 35 has remained in place for that same time. Despite that, fireground conditions have been shown to be evolving with more modern material and their consequent hazards, and there still a need to better balance heat insulation and physiological comfort.
There are many, many more areas of change that will be considered in the next edition of NFPA 1971, soon to be under the NFPA 1970 umbrella standard. How these changes are considered will be determined over the next 18 months, but it is very likely in our opinion that some significant changes will occur, fundamentally changing how we think about PPE.
The fire service should not sit idly on the sidelines waiting to see what emerges from this process. It is important for individual organizations to weigh in on turnout clothing-focused standards. Change can be difficult, but transformation through increased awareness and new technology is a way of life, particularly when it comes to ensuring that firefighters receive the best possible protection at the lowest possible cost – in terms of both risk and money.
Note: The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of the sponsor.