To better protect firefighters, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) revised its Section 1851 standard in 2019 to change the way departments handle protective gear.
It was the first time since 2014 that NFPA altered its Standard on Selection, Care and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting. The update provides comprehensive criteria for protective ensembles to reduce health and safety risks associated with improper maintenance, contamination, or damage, NFPA explained.
Section 1851 impacts everything from clothing worn by firefighters to how they clean their gear. Right now, the standards are just guidelines for fire departments to follow, says Deana Stankowski, senior offering manager for first responder gear at Honeywell. But she predicts that will soon change.
“It is likely going to become a mandate at some point in the next five years,” she says.
“In the past, it was a badge of honor to wear dirty turnout gear because it showed that a firefighter had seen some action,” Stankowski explains. “Today, dirty gear likely means exposure to cancer.
“While old standards required gear to be cleaned once a year, the new standard doubles that and also requires washing gear after every fire,” she adds. “The new standard prohibits gear from being taken into breakrooms and governs how it is stored. It also establishes procedures to follow when cleaning it. Its goal is to reduce the level of cancer-causing particulates to which personnel are exposed.”
The standard applies to everything from coats, helmets and hoods to trousers, gloves, and footwear, NFPA noted. Section 1851 now determines how long firefighters can use the gear, how often to inspect it, and the conditions that need an independent service provider to remedy problems.
Section 1851 encourages a light cleaning of all ensemble elements after each use. It does not require removing gear from service to clean it at the station or an emergency scene. Commanders or supervisory personnel should answer any questions about whether to clean or decontaminate gear, and where to do so.
Isolate blood and body fluids, for example, at the scene to evaluate later and determine whether gear needs cleaning or decontamination. Bag elements separately and tag each with the individual’s name.
According to Honeywell, firefighters should not bring contaminated clothing home or even attempt to wash the gear at home. Nor should they use a public laundry to clean equipment. Have gear cleaned by a company with protective measures in place to handle gear.
It’s also important that departments not take turnout gear to a commercial dry cleaner unless the gear manufacturer allows use of that service. Some dry-cleaning chemicals can damage gear.
The standard recommends three levels of cleaning for turnout gear: routine, advanced and specialized.
For routine cleaning that doesn’t involve blood or bodily fluids, wash gear in a utility sink. Follow the manufacturer’s care instructions on the garment’s label. Use protective gloves along with eye and face splash protection when cleaning gear.
Brush off debris and rinse equipment with water. Use a soft-bristle brush to gently scrub the gear. The standard advises spot cleaning to remove small quantities of dirt. However, if the entire garment needs to be cleaned, wash it in a utility sink.
The water should be lukewarm with a temperature not exceeding 105 degrees Fahrenheit (F), according to Honeywell. The company recommends a mild detergent with pH levels between 6.0 and 10.5c. Those figures are listed either on the container or the product’s Material Safety Data Sheet.
After washing the garment, drain dirty water from the sink, rinse gear thoroughly and allow it to dry. Before returning gear to service, inspect it once it’s dry and clean it again if necessary.
Firefighters also should clean the sink with a gentle cleanser and rinse it afterward.
Really dirty gear requires advanced cleaning at least once a year, regardless of the ensemble’s condition.
Because this process often requires specific cleaning agents, the standard recommends that the manufacturer or a qualified independent service provider wash it with specialized equipment. Do not use chlorine bleach or solvents to clean gear without manufacturer approval.
Before washing, fasten all closures, including pocket closures, hook and loop, snaps, zippers, hooks and D-rings and any drag rescue devices attached to gear. Wash the rescue device in a separate mesh bag.
If you can clean shells and liners separately, clean them with like items, such as shells with shells. Turn the separable liners inside out to ensure the moisture barrier is inside for washing and drying.
Remove all detachable items from helmets before washing them. Those items, as well as gloves and footwear, should not be washed by a machine that produces agitation or tumbling, Honeywell notes.
Do not dry gear cleaned through an advanced process in direct sunlight. Rather, allow it to dry in areas with good ventilation.
After washing all gear, run the empty machine through a complete cycle while using detergent and water heated to between 120- and 125-degrees F.
Ensemble elements that are contaminated with hazardous materials or biological agents need specialized cleaning to remove specific contaminants. For that reason, firefighters should not attempt cleaning themselves. Send the bagged material to a qualified cleaning company instead.
Under the standard, firms that offer advanced cleaning services now must prove the effectiveness of their procedures through an elaborate process that involves using a sample contaminated at a laboratory. Put that sample inside a garment as it undergoes the company’s cleaning procedure. Once complete, return the sample to the lab to analyze remaining contamination levels.
There are only three categories of firms allowed to perform advanced cleaning:
- The equipment manufacturer
- Verified independent service providers
- Verified specialty cleaning companies
NFPA developed these standards with one goal in mind—to protect trained professional and volunteer firefighters.
Departments and firefighters looking to get a copy of Section 1851, can purchase it from NFPA for $61 by visiting catalog.nfpa.org.