Gear expectations: Firefighters expect more from their turnouts

Is it time to establish new metrics for assessing the longevity of modern firefighting gear?


Turnout gear longevity can vary significantly based on how it is maintained as well as how frequently it is used and cleaned.

While NFPA 1851 establishes a maximum service life of 10 years past the manufacture date for garments (as well as helmets, gloves, footwear and hoods), the true life expectancy of these ensemble elements depends on several factors. Many manufacturers project that coats and pants, for example, have a service life of 5 to 7 years with proper care and maintenance; this is for a moderately busy fire department. However, there are so many variables that go into how the clothing and its materials and components fare under a range of use and exposure conditions, that it is difficult to make accurate predictions about how long a piece of gear will last. Moreover, over the past several years, clothing is being subject to more frequent cleaning, which, while helping to make gear safe, can also speed the wear down process.

Fire departments are ultimately held accountable for deciding when to retire gear, with the more experienced personnel judging when gear has passed the point of safe performance. Nevertheless, these gear expectations may need to change as the fire service faces new issues relative to its gear and other forms of performance.

While NFPA 1851 establishes a maximum service life of 10 years past the manufacture date for garments (as well as helmets, gloves, footwear and hoods), the true life expectancy of these ensemble elements depends on several factors.
While NFPA 1851 establishes a maximum service life of 10 years past the manufacture date for garments (as well as helmets, gloves, footwear and hoods), the true life expectancy of these ensemble elements depends on several factors. (Globe)

Current practices, research and limitations

When protective garments are certified to NFPA 1971, the clothing, and more specifically, the different materials and components that make up that gear, are subjected to a battery of tests. These tests seek to ensure that the clothing meets minimum performance requirements deemed relevant by the responsible NFPA Technical Committee. Tests address flame resistance, thermal protective performance, total heat loss, tear resistance, seam strength, and several other factors.

Most of test are conducted on materials in a new and unused condition as well as after a set number of laundering cycles. In general, where laundering is used as a precondition for testing, only five washing cycles are completed, typically using an old-fashioned but standardized washing machine that no one can purchase any more.

Most performance requirements don’t address durability. There are some exceptions, like moisture barriers being subject to 10 laundering cycles and two moderate heat exposures as a precondition to their evaluation for both liquid and viral penetration resistance; however, other evaluations do not anticipate long-term use.

Some argue that the test criteria are set relatively high and allow for a certain drop off of performance, but this belief has not been effectively validated.

Multiple researchers have attempted to study how gear properties change over time. Many of these studies show that laundering can cause some properties to decline, while others remain unchanged, and some gear performance can even improve. In general, these studies (outlined in the references below) have shown the following:

  • Flame resistance and heat resistance do not change.
  • Most seams maintain their original strength, which can  even increase as slight fabric shrinkage tightens stitching.
  • Thermal insulation often improves because of thermal barrier layer “fluff” up, increasing the air gaps in the material composite.
  • Total heat loss, a measure of breathability, decreases due to the same, but experiences contrary impact for thermal insulation.
  • Tear resistance (and other material strength) and water absorption resistance decrease with increasing laundering.
  • Moisture barrier water, liquid or viral penetration can be affected, but most modern moisture barriers hold up to repeated laundering without any serious loss of barrier performance.
  • Trim brightness and label legibility can decline slightly.

When these studies are directed at gear used in the field, similar trends emerge, with some small differences. Further, the studies show that different cleaning processes can affect gear performance differently.

Even with the requirements outlined in the NFPA standard and these research findings, fire departments have little information to go on, other than their visual assessment of gear, to determine whether frequently used and cleaned gear is fully viable for its intended protection. NFPA 1971 product requirements on the manufacture of gear, plus specified NFPA 1851 care and maintenance procedures, do help in this regard, but changes in the fire environment, emerging safety concerns, and a shift in how to handle firefighter garments warrant new approaches.

New needs

There is now a need to strike the correct balance between heat/physical performance, improved mobility and stress-reduction, optimum durability or longevity, and not being a source of secondary contamination (either through gear degradation or retention of contamination).

Right now, NFPA 1971, in establishing minimum performance requirements, only addresses the first two areas, where measures like TPP (thermal protective performance as a way of establishing thermal insulation levels) and THL (total heat loss for assessing the potential for physiological stress on firefighters) can be examined to find the best tradeoff between insulation and comfort. Yet, the standard does not adequately address durability by looking at properties such as flex fatigue, abrasion resistance, and realistic levels of ordinary environmental exposures. It also does not include much in the way of contamination reduction other than a water absorption test, which was originally included in the standard for the purpose of reducing gear water weight gain or liquid/viral penetration tests as a means of preventing direct exposure to hazardous liquids.

While it might seem that such additional measurements could be added to address these shortcomings in the standard, the inclusion of new tests and criteria may create penalties for other areas of performance, so tradeoffs have to be considered. For example, the emergence of new products with fluorine-free finishes for outer shell and other materials will address fire service concerns about the use of certain chemicals on materials where it is believed that the loss of these finishes contributes to firefighter exposures. These materials could result in products that have different characteristics in terms of their durability, overall repellency, contamination resistance and ease of cleaning, where some changes in properties may be favorable and others may not be better relative to incumbent materials.

The absence of standardized ways to evaluate how different types of turnout gear and its materials hold up over time, break down by releasing chemicals, become contaminated, and can be effectively cleaned warrants new tests that are not currently in NFPA 1971. The pursuit of additional longevity and safety data for firefighter garments is needed because it is important that the fire service have a solid understanding of how such gear performance attributes affect their overall protection and safety.

The tools necessary for manufacturers and testing laboratories to make these assessments are based on information that properly frames the objectives for gear in the modern era. Specific needs may include:

  • Improving the ability to assess gear durability by testing how turnout clothing materials hold up to the combination of repeated abrasion, flexing, contamination and cleaning to ensure that thermal protection properties and physical hazard resistance properties are maintained.
  • Establishing accepted methods that determine if substances of concern are present in clothing material and components, beyond the rates these substances are released under operating conditions.
  • Evaluating how easily materials become contaminated and the types of hazards that residual contamination in gear can impose on firefighters.
  • Quantifying the ability of ordinary cleaning methods, including on-scene preliminary exposure reduction and advanced cleaning, to remove harmful contamination from protective clothing materials.

Evolving expectations

Firefighters’ expectations for their turnout gear have changed. Decades ago, these expectations focused simply on “reasonable” levels of protection from a wide range of thermal and physical hazards. That changed in the 1990s, with the expectation of having lighter-weight gear with fully breathable materials, plus balancing protection from heat while reducing the stress on firefighters wearing insulated and barrier clothing.

Now, there are newer expectations for ensuring that the gear does not impose additional hazards to firefighters from direct or indirect exposures to contamination. Such expectations involve a variety of assessments that have not traditionally been conducted on turnout gear. It remains up to the fire service to inform those who write the standards as to their expectations for how long gear should last and the specific tradeoffs that are considered acceptable for setting new requirements.

As NFPA 1971 is entering into a new cycle of revision, it important to take a step back and validate how well the existing criteria works for modern firefighting and consider installing new metrics to address gear expectations.

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

References

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