Firefighters once ridiculed any colleague caught wearing clean bunker gear. For them, dirty, grimy protective clothing was a badge of honor that reflected the challenges of their job far more dramatically than collecting shiny medals from the chief.
However, firefighters today recognize that decontamination and routine maintenance of personal protective equipment (PPE) helps keep its occupants safer in the performance of their duties, said Rick Johnson, president and co-owner of Dallas-based Gear Cleaning Solutions.
“NFPA 1851 states that a fire fighting entity must have their gear cleaned and inspected a minimum of once a year,” Johnson said. “That’s what our company does.”
Regular cleaning reduces health risks by removing hazardous contaminants and breathable particulate. It also reduces risk to safety by removing burnable residues, reducing heat absorption and improving fire retardant qualities.
GCS cleans, repairs, inspects and certifies fire gear for more than 500 fire fighting entities nationwide from Virginia Beach, VA, to Hawaii. Turnaround can usually be accomplished within 24 to 72 hours.
The company’s staff of 23 employees process nearly 1,500 sets of gear a month, Johnson said.
“It may take several different types of sewing machines just to repair one garment,” he said. “We operate a fleet of nearly 20 sewing machines to do the work.”
That the company is owned by career firefighters serves to emphasize that management understands the importance of doing the job right.
“I’m not afraid to turn down a customer because what they want would not be safe,” Johnson said.
Before the washing and repair starts, the first step for any gear sent to GCS is bookkeeping, much of it required by NFPA standards.
“The first thing we do is document everything,” Johnson said. “We identify the serial number and to whom that number was issued. We start a tracking process. That way if the fire department is inspected by someone like OSHA they have a complete record.”
Another important part of the bookkeeping process is to identify any specific chemicals to which the gear has been exposed to in order to identify the best cleaning procedures, he said.
“Probably 98 percent of the gear we clean has been exposed to a petroleum product or some sort of hydrocarbon,” Johnson said. “The cleaning process with that is simple.”
GCS uses industrial washing machines known as extractors for routine cleaning. Owning an extractor, as many fire departments do, and using it to its full potential are two different things, Johnson said.
“We have a certain procedure where we soak the clothing or gear in a special solution to break down the petroleum and hydrocarbons,” he said. “When we put the gear in the extractor the contaminants are easier to get out. After a 45 minute wash cycle, the gear is hung up to be dried at room temperature.”
If a department using GCS for maintenance and repair prefers to wash its own gear, Johnson said the company will lend its expertise to train the personnel onsite and consult on the technical aspects of obtaining chemicals or operating the pumps.
“That’s one of the unique things our company does for its clients,” he said.
At GCS, laundering gear exposed to hazardous materials is limited to what is safe to release into the municipal water treatment system.
“For example, if it’s a known asbestos exposure we are not going to clean it,” Johnson said. “The gear is going to have to be thrown away using a hazmat company. It’s too hazardous to attempt.”
As for maintenance and repair of gear, the first step is to weigh the cost of replacement against the cost of repair. NFPA now restricts the service life of bunker gear to no more than 10 years.
“We plug the numbers into a formula we call the repair matrix,” Johnson said. “We inspect everything from the outer shell to the thermal liner and moisture barrier. Then we go back to the customer and say ‘These are the things we found wrong. How do you want us to proceed?’”
If the customer prefers, repairs that are purely cosmetic can be set aside to focus instead on issues that are critical to the safety of the firefighter, he said.
“We’re pretty flexible,” Johnson said. “It’s really the decision of the customer about what they want to repair, not ours.”
However, any repairs must match the manufacturers’ specifications for the original gear, he said. On this point, GCS’ standards are exacting.
“It’s always done using the same material as used in the original,” Johnson said. “If the original used Tex 90 Nomex thread, then that is what we use. We repair it to the same standards used to manufacture it.”
GCS managers who directly supervise repair work train at the headquarters of the various major PPE manufacturers. In turn, those companies annually inspect the GCS facility to verify that the work done meets their standards, Johnson said.
“Rather than send the gear back to the manufactures, customers can have warranty repair work done here and decrease the turnaround time drastically,” he said.
GCS submits to an annual third-party certification process conducted by Underwriters Laboratories to verify that cleaning and repairs meet NFPA standards.
“A lot of departments and companies chose to contract out for cleaning and repair because they don’t want to go through that certification and verification process,” Johnson said.
A new aspect of GCS operations is renting fire gear for special use, he said.
“Let’s say a company wants to send someone to train offsite but does not want to ship it or risk damaging it,” Johnson said. “We can rent them a set of gear.”
GCS maintains a fleet of vehicles to pickup and deliver to its customers, further narrowing turnaround time. Steady growth in recent years has the company considering a second facility to be located in Houston.
“It’s been in the works for the past year,” Johnson said. “We’re just trying to make sure the time is right.”