5 strategies to extend the life of your firefighter gear
SCBA life extension and properly cleaning and storing PPE can extend the life cycle and save your department’s budget
By Robert Avsec
Outfitting new recruits, providing backup PPE ensembles and replacing firefighter gear, SCBA and equipment is a significant expenditure for any fire department. Use these five strategies to care for and extend the life of firefighter gear to protect your firefighters, as well as your budget.
1. Requalify SCBA
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued DOT Special Permit 16320, approving life extension for carbon fiber composite SCBA cylinders. The life extension process, based on modal acoustic emission (MAE) testing technology, detects microscopic flaws in carbon fiber composite SCBA through vibration.
Once conditioned to repair those flaws, the cylinder’s life can be extended an additional 15 years, doubling its viability.
2. Keep firefighter gear clean
Regular cleaning and complete drying, per the manufacturer’s recommendations, is critical for extending the life of the protective coat and trousers. Clean turnout gear also presents less exposure to the firefighter from surface contaminants and toxins trapped in the fabric.
Laundering your PPE is not like laundering any other type of clothing. While you want to get the dirt, soot and other contaminants out of the fabric, you don’t want to harm the fabric through your choice of cleaning agents.
Choose wash chemicals that have been formulated specifically for turnout clothing cleaning (Hint: Look for products that are labeled as being compliant with NFPA 1851).
When does PPE warrant advanced cleaning? That’s a commonly asked question and the key is to recognize that turnout clothing exposed to a structural fire is contaminated and not just soiled. By making this admission, the frequency for applying advanced cleaning practices increases in frequency.
Boots, gloves, hoods and helmets also require regular inspection and cleaning to prolong their useful lives.
3. Dry PPE quickly
Once PPE has been cleaned, the next important step is to get the gear dried as effectively and efficiently as possible by:
- Using a mechanical tumble dryer or drying cabinet designed specifically for PPE
- Active drying (e.g., hanging gear and actively circulating air through or around the gear); or
- Passive drying (e.g., hanging gear so that the gear is dried by the ambient temperature in the area).
If each firefighter is not provided with specially designed hangers for coats, gloves and pants to promote free air circulation for faster drying, then moisture, gasses and surface contamination hazards become a larger issue.
When PPE is not dried quickly and completely, moisture and contaminants can work their way deeper into the protective fabric. If not dried completely before the next exposure to water, the presence of existing moisture and contaminants will help the new moisture and contaminants pass into the fabric.
4. Let PPE breathe
When firefighters are enveloped in smoke and fire gases, microscopic-sized soot particles and fire gases permeate the fabric. They also get into the interior portions of the structural ensemble through interface areas.
Hanging the protective coat, trousers and hood with adequate airflow in and around the gear allows absorbed gaseous toxic materials to release from the fabric, that is, off-gas
5. Keep PPE in the dark
While direct sunlight is the primary threat source for PPE, prolonged exposure to the UV rays from that high-intensity fluorescent lighting in a fire station’s apparatus bay may also have a damaging effect on PPE fabrics.
Many fire departments have invested in steel mesh rack or locker systems and placed them in the apparatus bay to facilitate a timelier response, especially for volunteer-staffed departments. One way to protect PPE from UV rays in such cases is to use fitted synthetic fabric locker covers with quick-release Velcro fasteners to shield the gear.