Behind the Scenes of 2009's PPE Safety Improvements

Editor's Note: Mike McKenna is the chairman of the NFPA 1971 Technical Committee Task Group on Gloves, which is discussing changes to structural firefighting glove performance requirements. In addition, the NFPA Research Foundation has partnered with North Carolina State University to further research structural firefighting gloves. With the very nature of structural gloves coming under close scrutiny, the Task Group is looking for as much firefighter input as possible via a short survey. There's still time to take part if you didn't yet by clicking here.

By Mike McKenna

As I look back at the accomplishments of the NFPA 1971 Task Group on Gloves, Helmets and Boots over the past year and look into the immediate protective clothing future, I am looking forward to what is coming to the world of structural PPE. Many of those positive achievements are a result of the participation of the testing labs, manufacturers, research facilities and firefighters. Ironically, the very people that many firefighters blame are the ones trying to make firefighters safer. Manufacturers are not limited to the people that build turnouts, but also include the mills that make the fabric, the companies that develop moisture barriers and the industries that develop the other components.

The Task Group recently held a meeting in Phoenix, Arizona. This meeting was almost one year after the previous meeting and much has been accomplished in the past year. As the Task Group chair, I left the meeting with a sense of accomplishment and with a heightened respect for the dedication of the people outside the fire service that strive to make the firefighter safer.

I have received many e-mails over the years from those that believe manufacturers dominate the NFPA PPE development system and that these manufacturers drive changes to benefit themselves and not the betterment of the fire service. Firefighters have stated that manufacturers only care about the bottom line. That assumption is the exception to the rule. The recent Task Group meeting was attended by most of the major manufacturers of the related products, testing labs, research facilities and the fire service committee members involved in the NFPA process. The manufacturers provided invaluable input and brought insight to the process. PPE development and progress will not be possible without the manufacturers' participation. NFPA is sometimes very tedious, and this Task Group met for approximately seven straight hours on gloves alone.

One of the invisible, but key components in the NFPA process are the testing labs that complete all of the certification testing. Essentially, they ensure that the NFPA-certified equipment actually meets the performance requirements of the standard. The testing labs have an active and invaluable role in the process and were actively involved in the discussions and debates at the recent Task group meeting.

It is also important to recognize the contribution of North Carolina State University to the development of PPE. Research plays a large part in the development of new firefighter PPE technologies. The faculty, staff, and graduate students have done considerable research and have developed test methods that make firefighting safer than it has ever been.

NFPA 1971 recently closed to public proposals. The Technical Committee will now begin the process of sifting through public proposals from outside the Technical Committee. Many of the changes will involve refining the test methods to make them better and more applicable to the fire service. The goal is to make those test methods effective and a more accurate reflection of the firefighters' jobs. The testing labs that certify the PPE are driving many of those changes because they recognize the need for test methods that reflect the reality of firefighting.

Firefighters contribute in many ways every day and as firefighters, we need to recognize the other players in the process to make firefighting safer. However, the loudest voice in this arena does belong to the fire service.

We, as firefighters, accept that firefighting is an inherently dangerous occupation. Firefighters will continue to get injured, but considerable effort is being put forth on the firefighters' behalf from the manufacturers, testing labs, North Carolina State University and interested parties. As NFPA 1971 moves forward, you will hear about many of the enhancements in structural PPE. The manufacturers', testing labs and research facilities are working to make all firefighters safer.

I wish everyone a happy and safe new year.

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