Your questions answered: Gear Up for Changes – What’s Ahead for NFPA 1971
Gain insight into the future of firefighting PPE standards with Jeff Stull as he answers FireRescue1 readers’ most pressing inquiries
In a recent webinar hosted by FireRescue1, I provided insight on possible changes under consideration for the next edition of NFPA 1971 affecting firefighter PPE.
Due to a packed presentation, I did not have the chance to reply to all questions posed by the audience. This article provides extended answers to both questions answered as part of the digital event, as well as those not answered due to time limitations.
Question: Are there currently (or are there proposed) TPP/THL values for particulate-blocking hoods? And are there testing procedures in place to determine whether a hood meets a certain baseline to be considered particulate-blocking?
Answer: In the current edition of NFPA 1971, particulate-blocking hoods have the same TPP requirement of 20 cal/cm2, as do regular hoods. However, particulate-blocking hoods also have a THL requirement of at least 325 W/m2 (regular hoods do not have this requirement). There are several particulate-blocking hoods in the marketplace that achieve these requirements and are certified. Nevertheless, when more insulation is needed, such as those hoods that are used by instructors, it is expected that while these hoods will have high TPP values, they will not meet the current breathability requirement with a THL set at 325 W/m2. Changes to these requirements are being considered, but no definitive proposal has been made.
Question: Is there anything on particulate-blocking hoods only being used once during fire?
Answer: All protective hoods made for the fire industry today are required to demonstrate continued performance for certain test properties after multiple cycles of cleaning. This is partly done to demonstrate that the hoods can be repeatedly used in the field without loss of protection. Currently there are no provisions that allow for a disposable hood since any hood certified to NFPA 1971 must meet the washing requirements. Research performed at North Carolina State University has shown that some types of hoods subjected to repeated wearing, including heat and UV light exposure, donning and doffing, and washing, may break down sooner than other hoods.
Question: Will NFPA be studying the potential negative impacts of having a multi-layered hood and then a helmet shroud [ear covers], making the face mask the weakest link?
Answer: In actuality, the requirements for testing of SCBA facepieces are stricter than clothing requirements in terms of heat exposure for their certification to NFPA 1981. SCBA requirements were specifically increased to ensure that they do not fail before the clothing, given the essential need to maintain breathing air on the fireground. The minimum insulation level for hoods is a TPP rating of 20 cal/cm2. Helmet ear covers also have a minimum TPP rating of 20 cal/cm2. In comparison, NFPA requires that clothing and gloves have a TPP value of 35 cal/cm2. Therefore, the insulation provided by hoods in combination with the ear covers is only slightly more than what is provided by the gear itself. Yet, it is important that gear thermal insulation is often much higher than the minimum because of different additional reinforcement and insulation layers in different parts of the gear. It is further important to understand in setting these requirements that the committee took into consideration potential vulnerabilities of the firefighter’s head and neck in an area of the ensemble where multiple clothing and equipment items come together (helmet, SCBA facepiece, hood, and coat collar).
Clothing thermal protection and breathability
Question: Is there any standard for base layer under turnout gear?
Answer: Yes, requirements and certification of station/work uniforms are addressed in NFPA 1975, which will become part of the NFPA 1970 consolidated standard along with NFPA 1971, NFPA 1981 (SCBA) and NFPA 1982 (PASS) in late 2023 or early 2024. The general requirements in NFPA 1975 cover the use of materials that do not melt or that could adhere to the individual firefighter’s skin when exposed to high heat; there are optional requirements for flame resistance, water absorption resistance and insect repellency. The type of clothing items considered work apparel include short- and long-sleeve regular shirts, polo shirts, T-shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, pants and shorts. Technically speaking, it is possible that garments subjected to the standard could include base layer products that are close-fitting clothing items to the individual wearer’s body. This base layer could be either short- or long-sleeve shorts or even long underwear for the lower torso. One proposal under consideration by the committee in the new edition (NFPA 1970) is the use of base layer fabrics that may add particulate-blocking qualities to the ensemble when worn under garments. In this proposal, it is suggested that combination of base layer clothing with structural firefighting protective ensembles can be used to show overall garment particulate-blocking capabilities where the exterior clothing still must independently meet the NFPA 1971 requirements, and the underlying garments must comply with NFPA 1975 criteria.
Question: Are there any studies that evaluate station uniforms in conjunction with turnouts regarding TPP and breathability, specifically cotton vs. synthetics, shorts vs. pants, or even shirt and class B plus turnouts?
Answer: Some research has been performed to look at the contribution of the station work uniform to the overall insulation of the firefighter from heat, as well as its impact on turnout breathability. These studies have suggested that the work uniform adds thermal insulation but subtracts breathability. While consideration has been given on several occasions to the utility of base station uniforms contributing to the turnout clothing TPP values, concerns exist that reducing the turnout clothing TPP to account for the station work uniform would be problematic. This is because some items may not fully cover the same areas of the body as the turnout gear (e.g., short-sleeve shirts). Moreover, fire departments would have to carefully monitor their members to ensure that the station work uniform is worn in order to attain the necessary minimum insulation.
Question: Are any changes to helmet style/design being considered?
Answer: Design requirements are limited to helmets having certain minimum components, such as ear covers, at-the-shoulder goggles, and reflective trim. The configuration of the helmet is controlled by how the helmet meets the respective performance requirements, such as impact and penetration resistance for overall protection, and other areas, such as the effectiveness of the suspension system and retention system. The standard is not intended to restrict specific helmet styles. For example, some traditional styles of helmets that use leather in their construction can be and are certified to the standard, but require changes in some components to allow their ability to meet certain performance requirements. Similarly, European-style helmets can also be certified to NFPA 1971 requirements.
Question: Is there a better way to clean leather helmet components since they do not detach as other helmets do?
Answer: In the current edition of NFPA 1971, there is one requirement affecting how easily a helmet can be disassembled for purposes of cleaning. It indicates that your covers must be capable of being detached from and reinstalled on the helmet per the manufacturer’s instructions within a period of 20 minutes. Nevertheless, this amount of time could still be considered excessive and problematic for those departments where ease of removing certain components, including the suspension, would better enable their more effective cleaning. Many departments choose to use ultrasonic cleaning as a way of better ridding the helmet of contaminants, but standardized procedures for these types of approaches have not been created and are available from certain independent service providers. The committee is considering ways to further encourage helmet designs that enable easier removal of components, such as suspensions and ear covers that likely may provide more effective cleaning for the textile portions of the helmet that often come in contact with the wearer’s face.
PPE use, care and service life
Question: Due to budgetary constraints, my department uses out-of-date gear for non-certified personnel. When they complete class, we order up-to-date gear. Are there any issues with doing this?
Answer: The use of out-of-date gear for firefighters in training for those that are not yet qualified for service may seem to be reasonable; however, differences between old gear and new gear could be significant in creating new firefighter expectations for protection, plus the physiological impact that affects their understanding of gear limitations. Unfortunately, recruits are sometimes burned or subject to heat exhaustion during fire training, which may occur because they are unsure as to how much heat tolerance is expected. It is important that your department adhere to any federal, state or local requirements for providing appropriate PPE, which often means meeting current standards and not extending the use of gear beyond any established service life criteria.
Question: Is there anything on expiration dates of wildland PPE?
Answer: NFPA 1877 currently does not impose a maximum service life requirement, as is the case for NFPA 1851 and structural firefighting gear.
Question: I’m working on getting my department up to date with PPE inspection, care and cleaning. Do you have recommendations on where I should begin?
Answer: Individual fire departments comply with NFPA 1851 to different extents, depending on the jurisdiction and department practices. It is best to check with different groups in your facility, or contact independent service providers (ISPs) or manufacturers for their knowledge. The annex section of the NFPA 1851 standard contains several recommendations for how to undertake inspection, cleaning, repair and gear storage. Many ISPs and manufacturers further offer training for helping departments become compliant with the standard.
Question: Regarding the ability to effectively clean materials to remove fireground contaminants, will NFPA be addressing on-scene decon effectiveness?
Answer: The current proposal to NFPA 1971 to add cleaning verification requirements is being positioned for different materials or products for reporting purposes only. To make uniform any reported cleaning efficiency data, the proposed test procedures will involve standardized washer/extractor approaches so that material or product cleaning effectiveness can be best compared. Separate work has been undertaken by the Fire Protection Research Foundation to investigate the additional contributions from on-scene preliminary exposure reduction in combination with advanced cleaning to determine how much cleaning effectiveness can be enhanced by these practices.
Question: What is the current recommendation on washes before PPE is broken down?
Answer: Many manufacturers and material suppliers have demonstrated that their materials can be washed up to 30 to 50 laundering cycles and still attain expected performance. However, the breakdown of clothing, and in particular performance properties, is affected by more than just cleaning. It can be affected by frequency of use, undue exposure to UV light, excessive wear and tear, and the overall general care undertaken for specific clothing items. For this reason, it can be very difficult to provide an accurate prediction of how long gear can stay in service or how many washings gear can be subjected to without damage or loss of performance.
Question: Service life for garments is 10 years from date of manufacture. There are some personnel concerned about the life of helmets. Has there been talk of that in the standard?
Answer: The 10-year maximum service life has been a requirement in NFPA 1851 for several editions. Each time the standard is revised, this issue comes up for discussion by the committee, and several individuals have argued that helmets should be exempt from the 10-year maximum service life. Part of the reason why this requirement is not overturned for helmets is the inability to non-destructively inspect or test helmets in the field to determine if they still offer adequate protection. While damage to helmets can compromise performance at any time during service life, the committee feels that the longer helmets remain in service, the greater the chance that unobservable effects from use can occur that compromise protection. In addition, significant changes can occur from one edition to the standard, where standards are revised every five years, and 10 years represents essentially two cycles of changes for the NFPA 1971 standard. It is further believed that the improvement of protection technology and the consideration of additional design or performance criteria that go into successive revision of editions of the standard warrant replacement of older products. This ensures that the products provided to firefighters for their protection keep pace with the latest updated minimum requirements and minimizes the differences between new and old gear in the field. Lastly, recent arguments suggest that the inability to fully clean different types of clothing and equipment may result in unnecessary firefighter secondary exposure to contaminants as they may accumulate on items over time. Still, it is expected that this issue will come up again the next time that NFPA 1851 is revised beginning in mid-2023.
Consolidation of standards
Question: Will new equipment be labeled with two labels – 1971 and NFPA 1970?
Answer: Under the proposed labeling scheme, the original number of the standard (i.e., NFPA 1971) will be used to identify that the product meets the respective requirements for that part of NFPA 1970, though the reference standard will be the entire title of the new NFPA 1970 standard. It is hoped that this approach will maintain the prevailing identification of products with existing standards as the consolidation effort goes forward.