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PPE cleaning: Avoid “downstream” contamination

Do your part in the cleaning process before sending PPE to someone else for cleaning


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The fire service has been putting a great deal of effort into informing and educating firefighters and officers about the risk of developing cancer as a result of fireground exposures. Two key elements in that discussion have been the need for gross decontamination upon exiting the hazard area, along with the doffing of PPE as soon as feasible and bagging it for transport back to the fire station.

For this article, I'm going to shift the focus “downstream” to address how that gear should be managed upon its return to the fire station. For some technical advice and outside perspective, I spoke with Jeff Knobbe, PPE specialist, with the Alameda County (California) Fire Department.

Training on PPE cleaning

This broken down and tagged gear is ready to go in the extractor for a NFPA 1851 advance cleaning. (Photo/Courtesy Jeff Knobbe, ACFD)
This broken down and tagged gear is ready to go in the extractor for a NFPA 1851 advance cleaning. (Photo/Courtesy Jeff Knobbe, ACFD)

Knobbe identifies training as the most pressing issue regarding firefighters and caring for their PPE. “Too many firefighters are just putting everything in the washer/extractor and turning it on,” he says. “NFPA 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting (2014 edition) specifies that the outer shell and the liner must be washed separately.” (Per NFPA 1851, protective firefighting hoods should be washed with liners). Knobbe shares that one way you can tell if that's not happening is to look at the Velcro closures on the outer shell and see if the hooks are jammed with lint fibers, which can happen from the liner being washed with the outer shell.

NFPA 1851 also specifies the personnel must be trained in the care and maintenance of their assigned PPE. Knobbe noted that Alameda County Fire recognized this was an area where the department needed to improve. As such, it began having all recruit school personnel [entry-level trainees] complete the Globe PPE 101 course online to earn their certificate indicating that they’ve met the training requirements of NFPA 1851. “Currently about one-third of our workforce now has the training,” Knobbe says. “The challenge now is getting the other two-thirds through that same training.”

PPE back at the station

Upon return to quarters, the priority is for all personnel who were in the hazard area to shower and change into a clean uniform or other clean clothing. Failing to do so gives soot and other particulates (some so small they are not visible to the naked eye) the opportunity to be absorbed through the skin, especially as the pores in the skin open upon the exertion of cleaning, and then restoring PPE and other equipment to service.

Soiled uniforms and clothing should be properly washed and dried, not stuffed into the bottom of a locker with other uniforms – uniforms that have not been worn to a fire, waiting for wash day.

Liners are separated from outer shells to be cleaned separately. (Photo/Courtesy Jeff Knobbe, ACFD)
Liners are separated from outer shells to be cleaned separately. (Photo/Courtesy Jeff Knobbe, ACFD)

Laundering PPE yourself

If you'll be doing the laundering of PPE (yours or someone else’s), make sure you are wearing the appropriate level of protective equipment for the task. At a minimum that includes rubber or nitrile gloves, full-face splash protection, and a N95 or N100 filter mask. Taking PPE out of the bag and preparing it for laundering opens you up to the risk of liquid or particulate contamination, particularly through the eyes, nose and mouth.

Begin by completely separating the liners from the outer shells (pants and coat) and turn the liner inside out. Fasten all snaps, hooks and Velcro closures on the outer shell. Then launder the liners and outer shells separately in the washer/extractor following these proposed guidelines from NFPA 1851 using detergents as specified in the current standard:

  • Outer shells – 15 minutes of wash with three rinses
  • Liners – 9 minutes of wash with three rinses

(Note: These proposed guidelines are being considered in the scheduled revision process for NFPA 1851 and will likely be part of the 2020 edition of the standard.)

Someone else cleans the PPE

Knobbe encourages fire departments to have a standard operating guideline (SOG) for sending PPE out to another fire station that has a washer/extractor or to a third-party service vendor for cleaning. “Don't just send them PPE as it was bagged on the scene,” Knobbe says. “Do your part by separating the liners from the outer shells and reversing the liners. The person receiving your gear for cleaning shouldn't have to do any of that.”

Additionally, SCBA and facepieces should be thoroughly cleaned and dried before sending them out for repair. “You continually focus on reducing the risk to you and anyone else handling that PPE down the line,” Knobbe adds.

Cleaning PPE with varied or non-fireground contaminants

While fireground exposures and gross decontamination are getting the lion’s share of attention, PPE can be contaminated on other calls as well. Firefighters working on an EMS call or motor vehicle crash can have any number of foreign materials getting on their PPE, from petroleum products to biologicals (e.g., blood or body tissue). In such cases, the PPE should be bagged and tagged with the type of exposure noted (e.g., coat has blood on it). “We direct our people to put any PPE that’s contaminated with blood or other biologicals into a red biohazard bag and treated as such,” Knobbe explains.

When he receives a bag that is tagged as such, and the liners have not been separated from the outer shells, Knobbe dumps the entire contents of the bag into the washer/extractor and runs it through the 15-minute wash cycle and three rinses. After this gross wash, he separates the liners and outer shells and washes each again separately, per the NFPA standard. “When I get a bag like that [not red-bagged or tagged], there's a lot of unknowns,” Knobbe says. “So, I’m taking the cautious approach to protect myself from those unknowns.”

This cleaned helmet is ready for return to its assigned firefighter. (Photo/Courtesy Jeff Knobbe, ACFD)
This cleaned helmet is ready for return to its assigned firefighter. (Photo/Courtesy Jeff Knobbe, ACFD)

Do your part in the cleaning process

Take note that the above information applies to the handling of PPE for cleaning, whether it’s you in your fire station, sending it to another fire station or sending it out to a third-party service provider. The key takeaway is that one should never transfer the potential exposure hazard of unknown contaminated PPE or SCBA “downstream” to someone else without having first done their part, like separating liners and outer shell or tagging as a special hazard.

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

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