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Understanding and applying PPE user information guides

How to apply these guides – and where they can be improved for increased use among firefighters

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It’s important to know that there is a reason and purpose for keeping the instructions that accompany your PPE.

Let us face it, how many of us actually read (let alone retain) the instructions for any new product? Of course, there are some instructions where we need them to either assemble the product or know exactly how to maintain the product once it has been put together. But for most situations, many of us are overwhelmed by such written information and simply discard it.

We believe that the approach to PPE instructions is no different. Sure, it’s possible that hard copy instructions will be retained by somebody, but they more likely end up in the round file. There are a variety of reasons for such dismissal of instructions, including just not having the time to thoroughly review them, not thinking they are necessary or simply total indifference. It’s important to know that there is a reason and purpose for keeping the instructions that accompany your PPE. With this mind, today we’ll address what to expect in PPE product instructions and why they can, in fact, be valuable.

Where can I find the instructions for the first service PPE items?

Any responsible manufacturer provides instructions for their products when there is at least some level of complexity or newness to the item. For turnout clothing, NFPA 1971 – the standard that establishes the criteria for PPE design and performance – also has requirements for the provision of instructions. The standard requires that printed instructions be supplied directly with the product, and in fact, be attached to the product in a manner where they must be physically removed by an individual in order to use the product. The intent here is simply to ensure that whoever gets a new set of PPE will at least see that instructions were provided.

Nonetheless, the actual end-user is not always the initial recipient of the gear. Often, new gear may first be received by a logistics branch or other authority within the department before being issued. The instruction booklet or sheet might be stripped away at this point. In other cases, gear may be transferred from one individual to another or provided as spare gear where there is already history of its use but no instructions. Regardless, access to instructions is possible by other means.

Manufacturers typically indicate that instructions are available to the end-user via the product label. These instructions may be in the form of replacement booklets. They can also be provided as a barcode that can be scanned, taking the individual to the manufacturer’s website for an electronic copy. Some manufacturers have also been experimenting with the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) chips where the user guides can be read from the RFID chip inside the clothing.

Bottom line: No matter the means, turnout gear instructions should be readily available to those who seek it.

What information appears in the user information guide?

In addition to requiring that instructions be provided to the intended end user, NFPA 1971 defines a list of information that must appear in the information guide:

  • Safety considerations
  • Limitations of use
  • Marking recommendations and restrictions
  • A statement that most performance properties of the element cannot be tested by the user in the field
  • Warranty information
  • Sizing and adjustment
  • Recommended storage practices
  • Inspection frequency and details
  • Donning and doffing procedures
  • Sizing and adjustment procedures
  • Interface issues
  • Cleaning instructions and precautions
  • Inspection details
  • Decontamination procedures for both chemical and biological contamination.
  • Maintenance criteria and methods of repair, where applicable
  • Retirement and disposal criteria and considerations

There are other requirements as well, like a statement that most performance properties of the element cannot be tested by the user in the field, also that PPE use must be consistent with both NFPA 1500 and the OSHA regulations for PPE. Other information requirements will depend on the type of gear item. For example, all helmets must have a list of items that are attached or installed on the helmet to maintain its compliance. Other parts of the user information requirements are supposed to provide warnings, such as advising users not to use an element that is not thoroughly cleaned and dried.
While these criteria exist for the type of content to be verified by the certification organization for the manufacturer, the level of detail is not specified for each topic. Thus, manufacturers can be as simple or detailed as they deem appropriate. In those cases where the same user information guides are provided by multiple manufacturers, the content may be more generic but is usually no less robust in providing details. Successive editions of NFPA 1971 will mandate additional levels of details.

What is the best utility of manufacturer user information?

A large part of gear instructions is the warnings provided by the manufacturer. These warnings are intended to increase end-user awareness about the capabilities and limitations of the product. Based on interactions between firefighters and manufacturers, there is a great deal of knowledge that can be passed on to end-users through the instructions. For example, some manufacturers will represent that burn injuries can occur through garments and other items with little or no warning. They will also warn that firefighters can be exposed to particulates, chemicals and other hazardous substances readily, as clothing cannot be a barrier under all conditions of use. The required sections on safety considerations and limitations of use generally attempt to address the range of fireground hazards that firefighters may face. Often, explicit statements are provided where and when turnout clothing should not be used against certain hazards. While many firefighters may recognize what turnout clothing can or cannot do, it helps that this messaging is reinforced in writing within the gear instructions.

User guides also provide useful information about necessary care and maintenance procedures. In nearly all cases, the user guide references NFPA 1851, which sets requirements for selection, care and maintenance for turnout clothing. Though some of the language provided in the guide may simply parrot what is already in NFPA 1851, manufacturers can further elaborate on specific aspects of cleaning, decontamination, inspection, repair and storage relative to their products. Manufacturers generally refrain from being too specific, such as providing a list of detergents that they may approve of or itemizing each type of repair that might be possible by a qualified facility, if permitted. This is mainly because the types of practices for carrying out some of these instructions can vary frequently. Consequently, some of these details may be provided separately, if at all, by the manufacturer or, more commonly, be addressed by customer service.

Keep in mind that the user information can be used as the basis for departmental training on the gear. Portions of the guides, in combination with the NFPA 1851 standard, can be used in training members about the general requirements for inspecting, cleaning and understanding gear performance.

How can manufacturer PPE user information be improved?

While there are certainly some quality turnout gear user guides available, there is plenty of room for improvement as well. This mainly comes down to the topics of accessibility that translate into useful availability, consistent level of content, and the ability to address changing information and to provide a greater level of details.

Electronic-based instructions should not be an add-on or supplement, but generally the preferred method of providing instructions. Further, manufacturers should consider presenting the information in a training format where instruction can be provided for new recruits as part of an academy class as well as to experienced firefighters in a refresher class.

NFPA 1971 should be revised to better inform on the level of detail needed in the content. Just checking the boxes for the topic titles and making instructions available because a manufacturer has to do so (in order to gain certification of their products) is not sufficient.

Lastly, user information must be fluid. This is problematic when we rely on updating hard copy publications, but in this age, there is no excuse not to modify instructions and guidance as new concerns are raised and more details are needed. In our electronic, hyperlinked world, this approach is not only feasible but the norm.

If we can better manage the way instructions are delivered, make them more interesting to our members, and certainly more relevant, then PPE user information can truly serve the purpose for which it was intended.

Note: The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of the sponsor.

Get all the facts about Personal Protective Equipment. Foremost PPE expert Jeffrey Stull writes ‘PPE Update,’ a FireRescue1 column that covers personal protective equipment options, fit, selection and all the regulations for its care and maintenance.