What to do with PPE when there's an accident

As well as our clothing and equipment protect against a myriad of hazards, they can’t always prevent severe injuries or fatalities. Although it can be a delicate matter, fire departments must preserve and inspect the gear worn by a firefighter at the time of an accident. During these times, there are a number of very important procedures for the fire department to undertake, particularly to preserve the benefits and care afforded to the affected firefighter or his or her survivors.

An area that is often overlooked is the preservation of the gear that was worn by the firefighter during the time of the accident. Proper care and handling of this gear fulfills a number of needs. First, an examination of the gear, taking the circumstances of the accident into account, can provide information that helps the department avoid future accidents. Second, the department could discover problems with the gear that might have arisen for a number of reasons.  Third, the gear could become the subject of future litigation and the fire department is obligated to correctly maintain the gear as evidence.

Chain of custody
Once the gear is removed from the firefighter, proper chain of custody of the gear must begin. Chain of custody is a way for the department to provide a history of who had possession of the gear and how it was handled while it was in the department's possession following the accident. Each department should designate specific individuals with this responsibility.

It is important to realize that the first consideration is often to get the gear off of the individual so that medical care can begin. In many cases, EMS personnel may have to cut certain clothing items off of the firefighter's body to expedite medical care. Therefore, when the fire department first assumes custody of the gear, a complete record should be made of each item, including the manufacturer, style/model name, serial number, and any other identifying information. It is also useful to take photographs of the gear to show its condition at the start of custody.

Proper storage of gear
The gear should then be properly stored in a secure area where access to it is limited to authorized personnel. Any subsequent contact with the gear (for any purpose) should be documented, including the individuals involved and what is done with the gear, such as examination and testing.

Proper storage of gear in custody is a must. Often clothing and equipment can be charred or otherwise damaged and become fragile, making frequent handling potentially problematic. Consequently, boxes to store PPE should be large enough to minimize folding or compression of each item. While it may seem convenient to put all clothing and equipment pieces in individual garbage bags, this practice should be avoided since moisture inside textiles and leather can contribute to mold and other unintended damage. The best practice is to line an appropriately sized box with plastic, but still allow some air exchange by not sealing the box.

Preserving the condition of gear
Generally, gear involved in an accident should not be cleaned. Cleaning the gear might cause damage, but more importantly is likely to change the appearance of the gear from its condition following the accident. The only possible exception is when the gear is contaminated with hazardous substances. In these cases, the department must weigh the considerations for personnel safety in examining or handling the gear with preserving the original state of the gear following the accident.

Examining the gear
It is important that affected gear be examined by persons knowledgeable in firefighter PPE. This can include members of the department, but also experts outside the department, such as manufacturer representatives and specialists. Manufacturers can offer insight specific to their products and can draw on past experience in examining gear. Similarly, special experts in the area of PPE can provide observations that help the department understand the exposure conditions and how the gear held up against these hazards. Depending on the circumstances, outside individuals will typically photograph the gear as well. To accommodate this purpose, it is best to have a large table available where the gear can be carefully removed and positioned for photography.

Often gear involved in an accident must be tested. Most tests are destructive in nature, requiring a sample to be removed from the item that inevitably changes it from its original condition. The involved department should be aware of any pending litigation before such testing is initiated. More importantly, there must be a clear purpose for conducting any tests. While tests can produce useful information, departments should realize that the tests sometimes do not yield results that help in understanding if the gear performed adequately. For example, a thermal protective performance (TPP) test might be sought to determine if the clothing offered adequate thermal insulation. The fact is that in many cases, TPP generally increases as a result of wear and laundering and thus may not explain a burn injury.

Notifying the proper agencies
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) investigates firefighter fatalities and serious accidents. These investigations can include reviews of the protective clothing and equipment involved. Nevertheless, there is no current formal mechanism for independent investigations of PPE. Departments can also notify the certification organization following an accident. Generally, the certification organization can affirm whether the product was certified to the relevant standard but may not conduct an investigation of its own unless there are widespread problems for a particular product. The leading certification organizations for firefighter protective clothing and equipment are Underwriters' Laboratory (www.ul.com) and the Safety Equipment Institute (www.seinet.org)

Departments should consider retaining clothing from an accident or injury for at least 2 years or whatever period exists for the statute of limitations within their respective locality. Proper care and handling of PPE following an accident is a good way to understand how well the clothing and equipment performs, whether the gear is implicated or not.

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