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Can you guess which question about PPE decontamination gets asked the most?

Hint: COVID-19 has made this question more pressing than ever before


Sponsored by Tencate Protective Fabrics

By Robert Avsec for FireRescue1

This isn’t just another article on why it’s important to clean your PPE.

Keeping your firefighting PPE clean and as contaminant-free as possible is an ongoing challenge for firefighters everywhere. (image/FireRescue1)
Keeping your firefighting PPE clean and as contaminant-free as possible is an ongoing challenge for firefighters everywhere. (image/FireRescue1)

Well, not if you had the chance, like I did, to chat with Jeff Reed of Tencate Protective Fabrics, an industry leader in fabrics used in the manufacturing of structural firefighting PPE. Reed is the end-user market manager for emergency response at Tencate, but deep down he’s still a firefighter, having been “bitten by the firefighting bug” in the late 1980s when he first became a volunteer firefighter with the Hillcrest Fire Company No. 1 in Rockland County New York.

What made the conversation with Reed interesting is that he’s also a “firefighter PPE fabric guy” and an advocate for the safe, effective, and efficient cleaning and decontamination of firefighting PPE.

“As a former firefighter, and I think you know what I'm talking about Chief, is that at the end of the day or shift you want to know you've done everything you can to keep your people safe,” said Reed. “And with Tencate and this job, I still get to do that and feel that same pride, just on a different and larger scale.”

It’s all in the chemicals

When I asked Reed to name the first thing that came to mind when I said, “biggest cleaning and decon issue with PPE,” he said without hesitation that it was the chemicals being used for cleaning.

“We have fire departments constantly asking us about this cleaner or that cleaner,” said Reed. “And I have to be honest with them that we [Tencate] don't have the resources to test these different cleaning agents against all our fabrics.”

So, what advice does Reed give them?

“I tell them to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for any cleaning agent, and specifically to look at the product's pH,” said Reed. “You want to use products that have a pH that’s relatively neutral, between seven and eight, so that you're not harming the fabric. I had one fire department that contacted me about a cleaning product and the pH was 12!”

Reviewing the guidelines: NFPA 1851

NFPA 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, first published in 2001, established for the first timed requirements for the selection, care, and maintenance of firefighting protective ensembles to reduce health and safety risks associated with improper maintenance, contamination, or damage.

The Technical Committee NFPA 1851 continues to refine those requirements as we learn more about the hazards and risks to firefighters from the chemicals, chemical compounds, and carcinogens present in the smoke of today’s structural fires. Here are a few key NFPA 1851 terms for PPE care you should know:

Soiling-The accumulation of sweat, dust, dirt, debris, and other nonhazardous materials on or in a firefighting protective ensemble or ensemble element that could degrade its performance or cause hygiene issues (3.3.90)

Figure 1. NFPA 1851 (7.1.2) describes the approach that fire departments should take in deciding the appropriate action for the handling, cleaning, and disposition of structural firefighting ensemble elements. Ensembles and ensemble elements must be evaluated by the user or a designated person within a fire department to determine what actions to take as described in this process flowchart from NFPA 1851.
Figure 1. NFPA 1851 (7.1.2) describes the approach that fire departments should take in deciding the appropriate action for the handling, cleaning, and disposition of structural firefighting ensemble elements. Ensembles and ensemble elements must be evaluated by the user or a designated person within a fire department to determine what actions to take as described in this process flowchart from NFPA 1851.

 Gross Decontamination-A term used in the hazardous materials response industry to indicate the partial removal of exterior contamination from protective clothing, usually by rinsing with water, sometimes with detergent, to allow for the safe exit of the responder from the protective clothing in the contamination reduction zone of an emergency incident (3.3.44) See also Preliminary Exposure Reduction.

Preliminary Exposure Reduction-Techniques for reducing soiling and contamination levels on the exterior of the ensemble or ensemble elements following incident operations (3.3.66)

Cleaning-The act of removing soiling and contamination from ensembles and ensemble elements by mechanical, chemical, thermal, or combined processes (3.3.12)

Advanced Cleaning-The act of removing both soiling and contamination generally associated with products of combustion (3.3.12.1) Note: For advanced cleaning, NFPA 1851 specifies that firefighters use a mild detergent with a pH of between 6 and 10.5 as indicated on the original product container label or the product’s safety data sheet (SDS).

Specialized Cleaning-The act of removing hazardous materials, soiling associated with body fluids, or other forms of contamination (3.3.12.2)

Verified Independent Service Provider (ISP)-An independent service provider verified by a third-party certification organization to conduct advanced inspection, advanced cleaning and sanitization, basic repair, and advanced repair service (3.3.115)

Another health risk firefighters today face: COVID-19

When asked about any specific issues that have come out of the coronavirus pandemic regarding PPE, Reed had this to say. “The big thing goes back to the chemicals people are using,” said Reed. “In addition to the pH [neutral at 7 to 8] look at the product labeling and its SDS for the product’s kill time.”

Reed went on to describe kill time as the amount of time a product needs to remain on a surface to kill a pathogen (e.g., viruses or bacteria or fungi). “And that gets into the question of ‘rinse or no rinse’ because if you're spraying a cleaner on a surface, and then wiping it off right away, that's probably not killing anything,” said Reed.

And don’t discount the use of detergent and water. Chemically, all soap has a head that is hydrophilic, meaning it likes mixing with water. And soap also has a tail that is hydrophobic, meaning it likes mixing with oils and fats.

“Chemistry for the win here. Typically, water and fats/oils don’t like to mix. But when you add soap, they suddenly do,” said Dr. Daniel Pastula, a neuro-infectious disease expert at UCHealth at the University of Colorado Hospital.

In an article posted on the UCHealth website, Dr. Pastula explained the positive implications of soap combining fats and oils. “Soap can bridge the chemical differences between water and fat. That’s why you need soap to clean a greasy frying pan,” said Dr. Pastula. And that’s what makes soap and water so effective at destroying the coronavirus—and any other types of viruses, like those that cause the common cold or seasonal influenza.

“Guess what’s coating this particular virus [coronavirus]? It’s a layer of fat,” said Dr. Pastula. “Soap molecules can pry themselves into the fatty layer of this particular virus and break it up, thus inactivating the virus.”

It’s that fatty layer that enables any virus to adhere to surfaces more readily and survive. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, plastic is the surface the coronavirus survives on for the longest - up to 72 hours. Other surfaces mentioned in the study included stainless steel (up to 48 hours), cardboard (24 hours), and copper (4 hours).

Help not hurt your PPE

There was already an increased emphasis on the cleaning and disinfecting of the crew cab on fire apparatus—to remove potential chemicals, chemical compounds, and carcinogens from structural firefighting—before the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.  And with that increased cleaning and disinfection comes another potential conflict with that cleaning and firefighter PPE as described by Reed.

“One day I’m in a fire station and a firefighter was showing me how they were using a new fogger to disinfect the crew cab on their engine. When I asked him if there were any chemicals like chlorine in the solution he was using, he asked me why,” said Reed. “So, I told him that the straps on his SCBA are made with Nomex and Kevlar and that chlorine is ‘bad news’ for those materials. He didn’t know.”

Reed’s advice to all fire departments is to ensure that all such PPE (e.g., helmets, gloves, and hoods) that are made with fabrics like Nomex, Kevlar, or PBI are removed from the crew cab before any cleaning procedures are undertaken.

Keeping your firefighting PPE clean and as contaminant-free as possible is an ongoing challenge for firefighters everywhere. So, given the import role your PPE plays in protecting your health and well-being, shouldn’t you be diligent in your efforts to stay informed and educated about how best to protect your PPE?

Well, given the fact that you’re reading this last sentence, you can safely mark yourself in the “YES” column!

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Read next: Why there's no doubt that cooler and more comfortable PPE is also the safer option

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