Why the 10-year PPE retirement rule lives on

NFPA members recently voted to keep the mandatory 10-year retirement rule in place for PPE; here's why and why it is so difficult to evaluate

Last month, the National Fire Protection Association held its annual meeting in Chicago. As is the case with such events, continuing controversial issues can be brought to the floor of the NFPA Technical Association meetings and resolved by the NFPA members present.

This year a challenge was made to the proposed new edition of NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Firefighting and Proximity Firefighting.

The challenge was on continuing the mandatory 10-year retirement for all protective elements, with specific focus on firefighter helmets. As provided in such forums, debate on both sides of the issue ensued and a moderate majority of NFPA members favored retaining the current 10-year requirement by a vote of 105 to 76.

The debate
Proponents for retiring protective elements at 10 years have stated that it is essential for firefighters to periodically replace their gear. A fundamental part of this argument is that NFPA standards are revised every five years and a 10-year span represents two editions of the standard. They also say that significant changes can occur in product technology and performance requirements for various firefighting protective products during that time.

The same individuals also point to the fact that there are no nondestructive methods that can truly ascertain the condition of the product after an extended service life.

On the other side of the issue, some firefighters contend that the absence of such information, and specifically the lack of any sophisticated study showing increased risk to firefighters, is a basis for not having a 10-year retirement requirement, at least for helmets.

Complex issue
Gear retirement has always been a relatively complex and difficult issue to assess. The NFPA technical committee has struggled to define specific criteria and guidance that allows fire departments to judge the continued use of protective clothing and equipment.

There are some limited tests that can be applied to portions of the protective ensemble. But unless the damage is completely obvious, it can be hard to determine if the safety of clothing and equipment has been compromised by its long-term use.

Some studies over the past several years have examined the condition of used clothing, and in particular, measured performance properties relative to those requirements that exist in the NFPA 1971 standard. This standard governs structural firefighting protective clothing and sets both design and performance requirements for new clothing issued to firefighters.

Studying used PPE
The studies on used clothing have generally indicated that some properties will diminish over time while other properties remain unchanged — in some circumstances some areas of performance can actually improve. The most recent of these studies was conducted at the University of Kentucky and provided some interesting findings.

A part of that study that focused on high-visibility trim shows conspicuity (ability to be seen) at accepted levels for the large majority of retired gear. Making judgments about the application of performance data on used turnout clothing is very difficult; that much of this testing is destructive does not make it easy to undertake these assessments.

The new standard
With the challenge resolved, the new edition of NFPA 1851 will soon be available for purchase. It will implement a number of changes for qualifying those organizations that provide advanced inspection, cleaning and both basic and advanced repair services.

The standard now makes the distinction between manufacturers, manufacturer-trained organizations, verified organization and verified independent service providers — where organizations are fire departments and other entities that have responsibility for firefighter PPE. No specific changes were made to address retirement or provide further guidance for ascertaining the acceptable service life of turnout gear.

The topic on gear retirement and other subjects related to structural firefighting protective ensemble selection, care and maintenance are being further investigated as PPE service life is a major concern among fire departments across United States and Canada. The Fire Protection Research Foundation is launching a new project that will examine these issues and help define the "landscape of information related to PPE selection, care, and maintenance," with the output to potentially define the priorities for the next revision of NFPA 1851.

Besides focusing on gear service life, the Fire Protection Research Foundation will also turn its attention to the better understanding the problems facing firefighters for gear contamination and gathering information related to the approach for cleaning and decontamination.

In addition to examining current research, the foundation intends to conduct an extensive survey of firefighters, manufacturers, and cleaning and repair service providers. This survey will likely be launched later this year.

Rekindled debate
The debate on the 10-year retirement rule for firefighter helmets has created a renewed attention on all aspects related to turnout clothing and equipment care and maintenance that is well overdue. While NFPA 1851 tries to specify minimum requirements, the majority of these criteria are over generalized and still require departments to exercise a significant amount of judgment.

Information provided by manufacturers is often equally vague, mainly because it is impossible for manufacturers to anticipate the myriad of different conditions that can exist and provide specific guidance. More detailed and comprehensive information is needed to let fire departments and firefighters make informed decisions.

A debate that produces and causes the fire service to re-examine its positions is an appropriate way to start this process.

Liquid-protection testing
Earlier, we reported on an effort to re-examine how gear is evaluated for liquid protection properties. We are assessing to what extent firefighters get wet during structural fires and the types of liquids most frequently encountered. To this end, the following short survey is online and available for any firefighter to complete.

We thank you in advance for your participation.

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