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How to buy non-firefighting PPE

Not every situation calls for structural PPE; here’s a look at how to determine what other gear you may need


First-responders often find themselves in situations where they need a level of protection for which their structural firefighting personal protective equipment ensemble is not operationally effective nor cost efficient. The structural firefighting PPE is not a universal solution to protection challenges.

The current concerns about the appropriate level of protection for EMS providers and firefighters when responding to patients with the Ebola virus serve to highlight its limitations.

In fact, besides not providing the necessary level of CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear) protection, wearing structural PPE in non-firefighting situations can pose an additional risk to the responder from heat-related injuries. Structural PPE has become increasingly better at providing thermal protection from external heat sources while making it more difficult for the firefighter inside the ensemble to stay cool.

With the median cost of a structural firefighting ensemble (without SCBA) being $1,500 or more, cash-strapped fire and EMS departments can’t afford to lose that gear to a CBRN exposure. Fortunately, there are a growing number of solution alternatives to the protective clothing challenges for fire and EMS departments.

3 levels
NFPA 1994 states that CBRN protective ensembles and ensemble elements are designed to provide minimum full-body protection against exposure to chemical and biological terrorism agents. NFPA 1994 list three categories of CBRN protective ensembles: Class 2, Class 3 and Class 4.

A Class 2 CBRN ensemble protects emergency first responders when the potential exposure comes from a vapor or liquid hazard where the concentrations are at or above the IDLH (immediately dangerous to life and health) level and require the use of SCBA.

A Class 3 CBRN ensemble protects emergency first responders when the potential exposure comes from low levels of vapor or liquid hazard where the concentrations are below the IDLH, permitting the use of CBRN-rated air purifying respirators or CBRN-rated powered air-purifying respirator.

A Class 4 ensemble protects emergency first responders when the potential exposure comes from biological hazards or radiological particulate concentrations are below the IDLH permitting the use of CBRN-rated air purifying respirators or CBRN-rated powered air-purifying respirator. The [C]BRN is a modification of CBRN to indicate the ensemble protection provided by the [C]BRN requirements does not include chemical hazards, but only applies to biological agents and radiological particulates hazards.

In the 2007 edition of NFPA 1994, the Class 1 CBRN designation was reserved to be covered in NFPA 1991. This was done to prevent industry confusion in the classification of CBRN protective ensembles. The protection for high vapor threats remains in NFPA 1991.

NFPA Standards

Selecting CBRN ensembles
When starting your selection process for non-firefighting PPE, remember the Pareto Principle: Where a large number of factors or agents contribute to a result, the majority (about 80 percent) of the result is due to the contributions of a minority (about 20 percent) of factors or agents.

That means that you should focus your selection efforts on finding the fewest number of PPE ensembles (the 20 percent) capable of serving the majority of the PPE needs (the 80 percent).

Start by determining what the potential risks are to your personnel. Take a piece of paper and divide it into three columns.

In the left-hand column list all of the potential hazardous event generators that are located in your community or that could pass through your community. Some examples include major hospital, chemical manufacturing facility, an interstate highway or major railway.

In the center column, list what type of hazards each event generator produces. These may include infectious disease outbreak at the hospital, chemical that could be released at the manufacturing facility, or potential chemical spills from a highway or railway accident.

Keep the NFPA PPE ensemble categories in mind as you identify hazards and ask yourself this question: What category of PPE ensemble would be required to mitigate an emergency involving this hazard?

Take the information from your risk analysis and make some assumptions on how high or low the risk is from each event generator. Use those decisions to help determine the categories and number of CBRN protective ensembles you need to obtain for your department.

Pocket guide
One of the key elements for any non-firefighting protective clothing is a barrier layer that’s appropriate for the anticipated exposure risk. Another is to ensure that all ensembles and ensemble elements are labeled as being compliant with the guidelines contained in NFPA 1994 and 1999.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health “Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards” is a great source of general industrial hygiene information on several hundred chemicals and classes for workers, employers and occupational health professionals.

The pocket guide does not contain an analysis of all pertinent data. Rather, it presents key information and data in abbreviated or tabular form for chemicals or substance groupings such as cyanides, fluorides, manganese compounds, that are found in the work environment.

The information in the pocket guide is extremely useful for determining what protective ensembles you need (to match the risks identified in your risk analysis and pre-incident planning). Additionally, it is a great resource to aid your personnel on scene in determining the proper ensemble for the hazard they are working with.

The pocket guide is available in hard-copy format from a variety of vendors on-line. Departments can also obtain the pocket guide app for both the iOS and Android operating systems on wireless devices.

The most effective way to conduct searches on the Internet for CBRN ensembles is to use the Class designations from NFPA 1994. For example, a search using “Class 2 CBRN protective ensembles” resulted in hits for ensembles manufactured by Lion, DuPont, Gore and Saint-Gobain that meet the Class 2 designation. Searches using the Class 3 and Class 4 designation yielded similarly productive results.

There is no universal PPE ensemble that will protect your department’s personnel from the variety of hazards that they may encounter. However, it is possible today to provide them with a cost-effective set of PPE options for the majority of non-firefighting tasks they may be called upon to perform.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.