There has been a surge in interest for turnout gear cleaning products and services. This heightened interest has been driven by the recognition that firefighter exposure to secondary contamination in the form of unclean or improperly cleaned clothing is a real threat. This focus area has also increased after NFPA 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting put an emphasis on verifying the effectiveness of advanced cleaning in removing various forms of contamination.
We are impressed by the fact that there are currently about 80 independent service providers (ISPs) individually listed by the two certification organizations (Intertek and UL) that provide these NFPA 1851-specified verification services. However, this independent review of cleaning services is limited only to garment outer shell advanced cleaning involving organic and heavy metal contaminants, plus sanitization for neutralizing biological contamination.
The NFPA 1851-based cleaning/sanitization verification process provides credentials for ISPs, ensuring that requested services meet some minimum standards. Beyond that, there are various machines, detergents or cleaning products, and overall processes that can be brought into a fire department that are not subject to these same checks, hence creating gaps in product/service technology where “buyer beware” can apply.
Expanding current cleaning verification
A full revision of NFPA 1851 is underway, where all parts of the standard are subject to change. Like the 2020 edition, it is expected that there will be significant changes related to gear cleaning given that more research has been completed and the fire service has become more receptive to frequent servicing of their gear. One area being highlighted in the upcoming edition is an increase in verification options plus newer types of verifications.
All current verification of advanced cleaning and sanitization is performed solely on one outer shell material with a finite set of chemical and biological contaminants. This approach was validated in earlier work performed by the Fire Protection Research Foundation in 2018, and later efforts demonstrated that the cleaning efficiencies measured in the current NFPA 1851 procedures generally correlate well with actual chemical removal from field-contaminated gear. Nevertheless, the limitation to a single outer shell material, when there are many different shell materials, prompts questions about the potential for differences in contamination removal, particularly when new materials use different water-repellent finishes. Based on this gap, the NFPA 1851 committee is not only considering changing the selected outer shell material for verifying advanced cleaning, but also creating options for verifying the cleaning of any outer shell, moisture barrier or thermal barrier.
It is expected that this information will yield an understanding of whether there exists significant differences between materials for cleaning. When coupled with an upcoming requirement applied to material suppliers under the new NFPA 1971: Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting to report the cleaning ease for their products, cleaning effectiveness could become a parameter considered in the selection of gear materials.
An optional set of cleaning verification criteria and procedures related to protective hoods has also been proposed. Most of the focus has historically been related to garments, but it is well known that hoods become extremely soiled and often contaminated on the fireground. Given their proximity to the skin of firefighters, these products must be kept clean for firefighter health and safety. The new requirement is expected to show differences in products that could also be a consideration in their selection.
Addressing additional contaminants
As previously indicated, a limited number of chemicals and biological challenges are used for measuring cleaning effectiveness. This is primarily for pragmatic purposes, and the current choices for surrogate contaminants are intended to represent a range of chemical classes and properties. Namely, there can be large differences in the ease of removing some chemicals compared to others. For example, some polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) come out of clothing at significantly greater percentages than others.
The new edition of NFPA 1851 may contain procedures for evaluating removal of a much larger range of contaminants. So, instead of five PAHs, a battery of 20 PAHs would be evaluated. Standard test methods and associated criteria for the ability to remove other contaminants would also be offered. Consideration is being given to certain chemicals of concern, such as brominated fire retardants, dioxins and related substances, PFAS and others. Additional consideration is being given to evaluate the removal of asbestos, though this subject is fraught with concerns over liability issues.
Perhaps the most contemporary set of contaminants of concern are those associated with electric vehicle fires (or for the broader category of mobile or stationary energy storage system). Fires involving these systems are known to create unique contamination problems, and only a few studies have investigated the ability to successfully remove the decomposition products of these fires that impinge on and adsorb onto turnout gear materials. Consequently, an effort is underway to establish standardized procedures for this form of specialized cleaning.
Moving toward product/service verification
One of the largest gaps to be addressed is how to better police claims associated with detergents, specialized cleaning agents, new machines and overall processes. To this end, the specific verification of product suppliers for these items is likely to be addressed. This means that a detergent or cleaning agent supplier would then be able to legitimately make a claim of compliance against NFPA 1851. Right now, there are limited criteria for detergents – simply a range of acceptable pH and the absence of chlorinated solvents. While some suppliers claim their detergents or cleaning products are NFPA 1851-compliant, there is no program condoned within the standard for making these claims.
Going forward, a detergent or cleaning product supplier would need to go through independent testing defined by NFPA 1851 to demonstrate minimum levels of contamination removal. These companies would further need to specify the exact conditions for their use with detailed instructions (dilution rate, wash or cleaning steps, and be subject to outside audits of their products). After meeting these criteria, the supplier could then label their products as compliant with the NFPA 1851 standard and this compliance would be listed on the certification organization’s website.
Similarly, this approach is expected to be adopted for manufacturers of different types of cleaning equipment, other than washer extractors, where this equipment would be provided to a certification organization for a series of tests, primarily focusing on cleaning efficiency and an assessment for impact on clothing materials, along with a review of the information being provided to gain a verified product status.
Improving cleaning capabilities
A large part of the push for adequately addressing product and service claims is to ensure that the fire service has the best access to information, products and services to best clean, decontaminate, sanitize and disinfect their gear. The verification of cleaning capabilities at ISPs has helped, but making verified products and equipment more available to firefighters, in addition to identifying more extensive ways to address other materials and contaminants, can only make it easier for better minimizing contaminant transfer from gear as a means of unnecessarily exposing firefighters.
Note: The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of the sponsor.