Intrinsic firefighter PPE safety: A new perspective

Intrinsic firefighter PPE safety: A new perspective

The fire service has been inundated with specific issues related to cancer-causing substances and practices for avoiding exposure to carcinogens and other harmful substances. This subject has taken several different directions, one of which is to look at the PPE itself as a potential source of chemicals that, over time, get into the firefighter’s body and contribute to long-term health problems. It has been our opinion that the real dangers of fireground exposure occur as a result of: Having contact with different substances through respiration (not wearing the SCBA all the time it is needed) Skin contact during emergency itself (problematic when dirty clothing is not removed after use or when showers are not taken after the fire event) The continued exposure to persistent contaminants that remain in unclean PPE (when firefighter clothing is not cleaned after fireground exposures) Nevertheless, allegations have been made with respect to certain substances leaching out from clothing components, evaporating from the clothing during use, or otherwise causing firefighter exposure. Understanding PPE as a chemical exposure threat is murky. While certain substances may or may not be present in turnout clothing, the extent to which they are present and more importantly, the manner in which they may present themselves as a hazard for exposure has not been fully determined. To date, there have not been any studies that definitively show the quantity of particular substances that comes out of the turnout clothing and gets into firefighters’ bodies by any route of exposure. This does not mean to say that this does not happen – the topic simply has not been studied adequately. This should not further imply that industry should just...
The Continuing Debate on Turnout Gear Service Life

The Continuing Debate on Turnout Gear Service Life

Over the past several years, we have written various columns associated with the care and maintenance of firefighter protective clothing and equipment. One of the perennial issues on this topic has been gear service life. In many cases, this particular topic has been a subject of polarization among the fire service, particularly when it comes to firefighter helmets. In this month’s column, we attempt to shed more light on this topic to allow fire departments and individual firefighters to make better informed choices with respect to their gear service life. All clothing and equipment have a finite service life. For the most part, turnout gear is designed to be quite durable, made with rugged materials that are intended to repeatedly provide protection under a wide range of varying exposure conditions. By definition, service life is the length of time that clothing and equipment can remain in service while still providing a minimum level of protection. Nevertheless, even brand new gear that is subject to a serious fire event can require immediate retirement. Similarly, gear that is abused or improperly cared for can also lead to a shortened service life. The interpretation of service life will further depend on an individual organization’s understanding of what factors constitute continued safe usability of clothing and equipment, which can also be influenced by available resources. Yet, since 2008, NFPA 1851: Selection, Care and Maintenance of Structural Firefighting Protective Clothing has imposed a 10-year service life limit based on the element manufacturing date for any structural firefighting ensemble element, including garments, helmets, gloves, footwear and hoods. The reality of turnout gear service life Every...
Fundamental changes needed to address turnout gear contamination

Fundamental changes needed to address turnout gear contamination

In a recent meeting of the technical committee responsible for revision of NFPA 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, extensive discussion revolved around proposing modifications in how turnout clothing should be cleaned and, in particular, verified for removal efficiency of harmful contaminants. Changes have been recommended for moving forward with more frequent advanced cleaning of turnout clothing (At this stage, the changes have only been proposed. Ratification of the changes does not occur until the committee has formally voted on the overall standard.) Whereas the current edition of NFPA 1851 prescribes advanced cleaning to be performed at least annually, the new edition, if accepted, will require advanced cleaning at least twice a year. This means that those departments that follow NFPA 1851 will be conducting more frequent cleaning of their gear than in the past several years. AN EMPHASIS ON FREQUENT FIREFIGHTER GEAR CLEANING It must be pointed out that the NFPA 1851 standard has always indicated that firefighter clothing and equipment should be cleaned whenever it becomes soiled or contaminated. That requirement exists both in the current edition, as well as in the new edition. What is changing for the 2019 edition of NFPA 1851 is the fact that more frequent advanced cleaning is being prescribed for turnout clothing in general. Part of this change involves the promotion of language which indicates that exposure to the products of combustion represents contamination. Therefore, whether visibly soiled or not, the standard will be dictating advanced cleaning of clothing that is worn on the fireground. In addition to the increased frequency of...
Firefighter face, eye protection advances stalled

Firefighter face, eye protection advances stalled

Attitudes, not technology, are what’s holding back significant improvements to firefighter safety One of the elements of a firefighter’s protective ensemble that often gets neglected is eye and face protection. Most often firefighters rely on their self-contained breathing apparatus facemask, but SCBA are not worn for every type of emergency response. Manufacturers must provide firefighter helmets with either a set of goggles or a faceshield, which is intended for supplemental eye and face protection. Yet, these items may not be the most effective for emergency response activities other than structural firefighting and also are easily damaged and become a source of contamination. Perhaps, it is time to rethink how eye and face protection is provided. It’s been a running debate in the fire service and one that NFPA recently looked at. Without any doubt, the full facepiece of an SCBA is a complete and reliable form of eye and face protection. When properly worn, it protects against physical, thermal, chemical and biological hazards. Current standards dictate a high degree of protective performance including extreme thermal exposures. The committee that writes standards for SCBA has endeavored to make the SCBA the most survivable part of the firefighter ensemble on the basis that protecting the firefighter’s air supply should be of paramount importance. This philosophy transcends into similarly providing high-quality eye and face protection. While there are certainly circumstances by which this protection can be compromised, the use of SCBA facepieces during structural fires and similar immediately dangerous to life and health environments is quite appropriate. FACEPIECE LIMITATIONS If there are any limitations for the SCBA facepiece in terms of eye...
Update: Firefighter PPE cleaning initiative

Update: Firefighter PPE cleaning initiative

As previously reported, the Fire Protection Research Foundation, the standards research arm of the National Fire Protection Association, is working toward a project that has the short title, “How Clean is Clean?” This project is directed toward carrying out the research to understand the levels of contamination in firefighter clothing and how to properly clean that clothing. Here’s an update on where the project is going and some of the initial findings. To understand the significance of the project, it is necessary to recount the reasons that clothing contamination has become such a concern. For many, cancer in the fire service has reached a problem of epidemic proportions. Statistics clearly show that firefighters have an increased risk of certain cancers above the general population. Part of that risk is due to structural fires exposing firefighters to combustion products that include myriad of carcinogens. Most fire service organizations have adopted an aggressive posture to address ways to reduce risk through proper hygiene and other practices. Smoke particulates and fire gases easily penetrate turnout clothing and the clothing picks up and retains many of these contaminants. Thus, one way to mitigate continued exposure of firefighters to carcinogens and other harmful substances is to ensure that clothing is clean, a trend on the increase over the past two decades. Yet, despite the general improved practices, the industry still lacks any certainty if cleaning is effective and what approaches are the best to ensure that dirty or inadequately cleaned clothing does not become another way of creating firefighter exposure to carcinogens. Several studies show that firefighters are exposed to a variety of chemicals...