Why it’s so difficult to change gear service life requirements
Understanding the various factors that impact PPE service life – and why retirement rules aren’t so simple
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One of the more unpopular NFPA requirements related to PPE is the 10-year mandatory retirement for turnout clothing and equipment as found in NFPA 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting. The requirement states that protective elements manufactured and certified to NFPA 1971 for structural firefighting, which include garments, helmets, gloves, footwear and hoods, must be taken out a service once the item reaches 10 years from the manufacturing date placed on the product label.
While this has not been an issue for some of the more commonly replaced items, such as gloves, hoods and boots, it has been a point of contention related to garments and helmets. Some argue that this maximum service life is problematic for a variety of reasons:
- Department resources simply are not available to replace gear;
- The gear may be seldom used and, therefore, is in good shape for continued use; and
- Some firefighters simply don’t want to replace their gear for miscellaneous, sometimes personal, reasons, like having a favorite helmet.
Challenges for requiring retirement
The NFPA’s periodic Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service, most recently compiled in 2020, reports the following statistics:
“Overall, nearly two-thirds of departments have firefighters wearing personal protective clothing that is 10 years old or older. This unmet need can be found in departments serving communities of all sizes, including one-third of the large departments (which protect a population of half a million people or more). Among the smallest departments, more than three-quarters (76 percent) have at least some personal protective clothing that is 10 years of age or older.”
This data clearly shows that it is difficult for a significant number of departments to provide turnout gear with a service life less than 10 years to meet the NFPA 1851 requirement.
Departments and individual firefighters also have a difficult time inspecting their gear and determining when gear is unusable, except for the obvious damage that often occurs as the result of extreme fire exposures. According to the same NFPA report, “One-fifth (21 percent) of departments neither test nor inspect their personal protective ensembles each year, and only 13 percent both inspect and test their ensembles.”
This means that some departments are struggling to monitor the condition of their gear and may be either unaware or incapable of determining if their gear is no longer providing minimum levels of protection. While NFPA 1851 has extensive procedures and criteria for how to inspect gear, it is ambiguous for telling the fire service when gear should be retired. That decision is left to the fire department, which may, in turn, have to rely on manufacturers, independent service providers (ISPs), institutional knowledge among personnel, or outside experts to provide advice for PPE retirement.
Other factors that impact gear service life
Firefighter protective coats and pants represent a relatively complex type of PPE. Turnout gear is multi-layered and contains a large variety of features, both in the components that make up the gear and in the overall product design, which affects its functionality. While this type of PPE is extremely rugged, the different types of materials can wear or degrade differently over time as a result of both use and the type of care provided. For example, reflective trim on the exterior of the garment shell is going to be affected differently than the outer shell material on which it is placed. Other materials – the thermal barrier, moisture barrier, reinforcements, padding, labels, wristlets, closures and other hardware – have different characteristics with varied responses to fireground exposures that affect gear service life.
Other than distinct physical, thermal or chemical damage, ordinary wear and tear is subtle and hard to assess. Some signs may be easy to miss, such as slight changes in color, thinning of materials, loose stitches or loss of function. For instance, “function” here could be trim remaining sufficiently bright for nighttime visibility, moisture barriers keeping liquids from penetrating, and Velcro remaining secure in retaining flaps and parts of closures. The ability to notice these changes can be difficult unless the individual performing the inspection has experience in recognizing degraded gear. The ability to skillfully detect these potential problems often only comes from repeatedly examining different gear, which is not often the case for individual firefighters.
The types of non-destructive tests that can be performed are limited. For example, coat and pant liners can be turned inside out and hydrostatic testing can be performed on parts of the moisture barrier where observed leaks can indicate an otherwise unobservable pinhole. Holding the thermal barrier up to a bright light may permit seeing the breakdown of the insulating fibers in that important layer of the gear. Shining a flashlight on the gear trim in a dark room and comparing that to new garment can give a sense for retained trim brightness. Nevertheless, the ability to see weakening of an outer shell that has been exposed to much UV light or is otherwise damaged is generally not possible unless other signs of gear breakdown are obvious or the changes are so great that the layer seems threadbare and lighter than it should. In all these cases, observations may be made, but the question remains as to whether the level of damage is acceptable for keeping the gear in service.
Other industry impacts
Specific product developments in the firefighter protective clothing industry may be increasing gear wear and tear. Some fire departments and the ISPs that commercially clean and inspect firefighter gear have been noting that some clothing has been wearing out more quickly than expected. Generally, gear that lasts 5 to 7 years based on expected usage may be showing early signs of degradation or other damage much sooner than would be anticipated, often where principal materials show evidence of weakening and thinning in seemingly premature ways. It is not known if this early wear and tear is due to greater use, worse exposure conditions, or changes in material technology, but regardless of the cause, the possible trend warrants investigation.
The gear’s complexity required to provide broad protection against a variety of different hazards is partly to blame, along with new pressures to maintain gear in safe and clean condition. The fire service desires gear with greater protection as exposures become multi-hazardous, but at the same time does not want the gear to have an adverse impact on the wearer physiologically or functionally. Striking this balance is very difficult. Consequently, when trying to address new or existing hazards more effectively, there can be tradeoffs that can sometimes shift this balance, with one result being less durable gear. In particular, making gear more lightweight, flexible and ergonomic in both material selection and design may come with sacrificing other features or attributes. Some of these tradeoffs are thought to have the effect of reducing clothing service life.
If the direction of new material and gear development are potentially making it more challenging for gear to last 10 years, and these products are still certifiable, then it follows that the minimum requirements in the governing NFPA 1971 standard are not fully discerning gear durability consistent with end-user expectations. This points to an important gap where it is left to the firefighter marketplace to figure it out. We do not believe that this is where that decision should be solely relegated. Rather, the standards should properly distinguish the durability among products.
New hopes for improved service life
In terms of proposed ways that the fire service can address the issue of potentially declining durability, we suggest the following medium- and long-term approaches:
- Limit the use of structural turnout clothing to those missions that warrant turnout clothing. This approach is already being advocated by the IAFF and IAFC, though for different reasons, but offers the additional benefit of extending use life of the gear since it is used less. Of course, this approach then begs the question: If not turnout clothing, then what do I wear? The answer is multi-functional gear, which is simpler, lighter, less stressful and less expensive. We realize that simply buying alternative protective gear does not solve this problem. This approach comes with the onus of properly managing clothing for operational responses and further still requires a commitment of resources from the department.
- Use emerging cleaning technologies that create less impacts on the clothing performance properties, which can have the effect of extending the clothing life. Some of this technology relies on the use of specialized carbon dioxide-based cleaning capabilities has been shown to have fewer effects on the gear and its performance properties. But as with any new solution, it is not without its shortcomings. In this case, the technology is relatively new and expensive, and, consequently, just not as accessible as it could be to make a large difference.
- Even if those solutions could be considered short term, the more comprehensive path is to create material and product requirements that better address product durability for maximizing structural turnout clothing life and make these part of the soon-to-be-revised NFPA 1971 requirements. This approach can only be supported by new test methods and criteria that are applied to the certification process for new products going forward. It will require a commitment of the manufacturing industry and material suppliers to evolve some of their protection technology accordingly.
Adapting to ever-changing PPE needs
Ironically, it may turn out that under today’s changing fireground conditions, current gear does not even get close to providing a 10-year service life for moderately or very busy departments. Yet, whatever the situation, it remains clear that further clothing changes are needed to meet the ever-expanding capabilities and expectation for fire service PPE.
[Read next: Turnout gear service life: Will we ever have clear ‘keep or retire’ guidelines?]
Note: The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of the sponsor.