By Author(s): Henry Costo 
Published Wednesday, February 1, 2012
| From the February 2012  Issue of FireRescue 
Despite the strong and mounting evidence of the risk to their personal wellbeing, an alarming number of firefighters continue to cling to the misguided notion that sporting soiled and soot-stained turnout gear somehow enhances their firefighting stature. To put it bluntly, this illusion of “saltiness” is in no way an accurate indication of relative firefighting prowess, but rather is a blatant manifestation of personal foolhardiness.
The facts compelling the continual cleaning, maintenance and inspection of personal protective equipment (PPE) elements are indisputable. The technologically advanced fibers, filaments, fabrics and composites that comprise modern turnouts have been designed to provide unique performance properties that function to safeguard and enhance firefighter safety. These specialized materials require equally specialized care and maintenance to safeguard their essential protective characteristics and the durability of these extraordinary properties.
Studies by the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) and other groups have amply demonstrated that accumulated soot in and on turnouts will diminish their protective performance by:
- Reducing the ability of the garment to reflect radiant heat;
- Making the garment increasingly “ignitable”;
- Reducing the garment’s ability to repel water; and
- Increasing the garment’s electrical conductivity.
In addition to diminishing the protection afforded the wearer, those same studies have proven that allowing turnouts to remain in a soiled, contaminated state actually reduces the durability of these life-saving garments. Soiled fabrics weaken and become increasingly susceptible to tears and/or punctures; reflective trim loses its conspicuity; structural threading loses strength, loosens and/or fails; moisture barrier seam taping fails; etc.
An equally, if not more, disturbing aspect of these multiple studies of soiled, soot-laden turnouts is the fact that such gear has been found to be contaminated with an alarming array of dangerous chemical products of combustion generated by today’s fires. A partial list includes benzene, xylene, asbestos, lead, PCBs, heavy metals, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, formic acid, formaldehyde and other aldehydes, and numerous biological pathogens. Virtually all of these chemicals and substances are toxic and/or proven carcinogenic, particularly in the case of chronic exposure. And this is precisely the type of continuous exposure experienced by firefighters who routinely wear and handle turnouts permeated, impregnated and/or bonded with these materials.
Mitigating these exposure risks is fundamental to the safety of firefighters and to those around them. It is the commitment and resolve to do so that provides the underlying rationale embodied within NFPA 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, 2008 Edition.
Section 4.1.1 states: “The organization shall develop and implement a program for the selection, care, and maintenance of structural fire fighting ensembles and ensemble elements and proximity fire fighting ensembles and ensemble elements used by the members of the organization in the performance of their assigned function.”
The goals of this required PPE selection, cleaning and maintenance program are to:
- Ensure the selection of firefighting ensembles that are suitable and appropriate to their intended use;
- Ensure that these protective ensembles are maintained in a safe, usable condition to provide the intended protection to the firefighter;
- Remove from service any protective ensemble elements that could cause or contribute to user injury, illness or death because of their condition; and
- Clean, recondition, repair or retire such protective elements as necessary.
The establishment and administration of such a program can be accomplished via several methods, such as a “managed care” program administered by your turnout gear manufacturer, a department or self-managed program, a program managed by a certified independent service provider (ISP), or some combination of methods.
After much research and deliberation, my department opted to use the services of an ISP, and to date we have been extremely satisfied with that approach and the results. Although much of what follows derives from our experience, most of the issues and concerns discussed remain relevant to any program management method.
Where to Start
The careful and considered selection of a qualified and compatible ISP will be crucial to the overall success of any ISP-managed program. Certainly this deliberative selection process must consider the various requirements regarding ISPs as prescribed in NFPA 1851, but many additional relevant factors that transcend the standard must be considered in order to ensure your long-term satisfaction with the ISP selected and the efficacy of your program.
Given the stringent requirements of NFPA 1851 regarding ISP certification, an obvious starting point for research on the suitability and compatibility of any potential ISP would be to obtain copies of all audit and certification documentation for each potential ISP as prepared by an accredited certifying entity. These documents are essential and should be kept on file by the contracting fire department.
Ensuring that an ISP has been appropriately certified to perform the requisite cleaning and repair work is merely the first of many items to be considered before your ISP selection is made. NFPA 1851 clearly delineates the various required parts of the mandatory selection, care and maintenance (SCAM) program:
- PPE record-keeping
- Protection of fire personnel and the public from exposure to contaminated PPE
- PPE selection
- PPE inspection
- PPE cleaning and decontamination
- PPE repair
- PPE storage
- PPE retirement
The standard’s requirements for the maintenance of PPE records are fairly rigorous and essentially require the recording of any related activity for each protective ensemble element from its “birth” to its “death.” At least the following records shall be maintained for each element of the protective ensemble:
- Person to whom the element is issued
- Date and condition when issued (particularly important with pre-worn assets)
- Manufacturer and model name or design
- Manufacturer’s identification, lot number and serial number (all identifying numbers)
- Month and year of manufacture (“born on” date)
- Date(s)/findings of advance inspection
- Dates(s)/findings of advanced cleaning or decontamination
- Reason for advanced cleaning or decontamination and who performed same
- Date(s) of repair(s), who performed repair(s), brief description of repair(s)
- Date of retirement
- Date and method of disposal
Remember: These are only the basic and required records; it’s very likely that your department will identify the need to maintain even more comprehensive records as your program moves forward.
In addition to assessing a given ISP’s ability to meet the basic record-keeping requirements above, the savvy fire department will also consider the ability of the ISP to:
- Willingly modify and expand the basic tracking and record-keeping database as you identify additional needs;
- Quickly and accurately enter all data;
- Demonstrate its data-storage and management capabilities and its history of doing so;
- Demonstrate related data-capture equipment capabilities (e.g., electronic scanning of garment identifiers);
- Make data and reports readily available and accessible (e.g., online access to records by the fire department); and
- Quickly and accurately track and record the reassignment of pre-worn assets from firefighter to firefighter.
It’s important to note here that this data is merely being managed and stored by the ISP. The accumulated data must be clearly identified as the sole property of the contracting fire department. Explicit language should be included in the contract requiring the ready provision and transfer of the data to the owning fire department and to the new service provider upon termination of the existing contract.
Of course, it doesn’t matter how proficient an ISP is at record-keeping if it cannot adequately perform the requisite cleaning, decontamination and repair work. The fact that an ISP has satisfied the certification requirements of NFPA 1851 should provide reasonable assurance that the ISP is at least capable of performing cleaning and repair as required by the standard, but virtually all fire departments will need to know much more to make an informed ISP selection with which the department will be comfortable.
References & Inquiries
This is where your network of other fire departments and firefighters, manufacturer and supply chain representatives (including scientists and researchers), academic types, etc., will prove to be invaluable. A quality ISP will be willing, if not eager, to provide a list of references including other end-users. These references are an excellent source of information and guidance regarding the ISP’s capabilities, the quality of its work, its capacities or ability to handle volume, turnaround times experienced, pricing and services, history in the business, and ability and willingness to perform PPE modifications and retro-fits as such needs develop during the life of the contract.
It’s also important that you make inquiries to PPE manufacturers, especially your department’s current manufacturer, to ascertain the nature of the ISP’s relationship with them. Is the ISP certified by the manufacturer(s) to perform cleaning and repair work while maintaining factory warranties? A positive, collaborative ISP/manufacturer working relationship is crucial to the success of your SCAM program during the life of the contracts with each. As your department identifies needs for PPE modifications and implements these changes with the manufacturer, it’s important for them to collaborate with the ISP to ensure that it can perform necessary cleaning and maintenance modifications in a manner consistent with that of the manufacturer and with equally uniform and quality results.
It’s also important to check with the various entities that comprise the supply chain for your manufactured turnouts regarding their business relationships with the ISP. It’s necessary to know if there are any impediments to the timely delivery of necessary repair materials to the ISP, such as moisture barrier, seam tape, outer shell fabric, thermal liner, reflective trim, etc.
Another essential step in the investigative process: a site visit to all ISPs being considered. Inspect the prospective facilities first-hand in order to ascertain:
- The condition of the facility and its equipment, including its age, cleanliness and maintenance;
- PPE check-in and tracking procedures during processes;
- Working conditions and worker skill levels; and
- The apparent capacity to handle your department’s volume of cleaning and repair work.
It should be obvious that another important consideration is the geographic proximity of the ISP to your department. There are distinct advantages to utilizing a proximate qualified vendor, such as shorter turnaround times, reduced shipping/delivery costs, the ability to provide emergency response service for hazmat and/or biological pathogen contaminations, etc.
Sample Garment Test
At this point in the selection process, it’s strongly recommended that you submit “sample garments” to the ISP candidate for cleaning and repair. Given that the ISP knows it is being evaluated, you would expect turnaround times to be fairly quick for these sample elements; therefore, any excessive return period should be a clear warning to you. Upon return of the samples, submit them to a qualified testing lab to evaluate the quality of any repairs performed. Cleaned garments should also be tested to ascertain the presence of any chemical residues and thus to determine the efficacy of the cleaning process.
A Weighty Decision
There’s no denying the importance of a well managed PPE selection, care and maintenance program, not only because it is required by the NFPA, but because it is crucial to safeguarding the safety of firefighters and those around them. Research, due diligence and deliberation will go a long way toward ensuring the appropriate choice of management method(s) employed and of a suitable and compatible ISP.
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