3 Ways to Extend Gear Life

Routine inspection + cleaning, + care keep turnouts and PPE in top shape so firefighters stay safe while departments save money. 

Todd Herring, V.P. of Product Innovation and Strategy, Fire-Dex

Most firefighters understand that properly worn PPE is required to limit exposure to contaminants encountered on the fire scene. It’s important to also understand that studies have shown that protective clothing can pick up numerous highly toxic contaminants, putting firefighters at risk of developing long-term health disorders. And it’s not just clothing that picks up toxins; it’s also gloves, helmets, and hoods. These toxins are then shared in common areas in the apparatus, in the firehouse, and even in firefighters’ homes.

Both the longevity of turnout gear and its effectiveness against carcinogens and other harmful contaminants rely heavily on one factor: proper maintenance.

The popular image of a firefighter in dirty, grimy gear is a badge of honor to many, but it also depicts a serious health risk. Accumulated soot or substances on turnout gear can have serious negative effects, including:

• Reducing the ability to repel water.

• Decreasing the ability to reflect radiant heat. 

• Causing reflective trim to be less visible.

• Creating potential for PPE to ignite (due to oil, grease, and/or hydrocarbon deposits—“the yuck”).

Keeping up with turnout gear maintenance provides three main advantages:

1. It reduces the risk of being exposed (and exposing others) to carcinogens.

2. It extends the usable life of protective garments significantly.

3. It saves fire departments money by prolonging the need to purchase new gear.

 

Scenes like this make a good movie, but in reality, contaminated bunker gear is a serious hazard to the wearer (and potentially others) for as long as the smoke lingers.

Taking proper care of fire-resistant and other specialty fabrics helps keep PPE in top shape and compliant with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards. The following maintenance tips can help departments get the most out of their gear:

Always check twice for wear and tear

When is the best time to inspect gear for damages? The answer is before and after wearing it so that rips, snags, and openings are spotted as soon as possible. Even minor problems can compromise the integrity of a garment, causing it to become irreparable with repeated use.

Fire-Dex recommends that turnout gear be maintained by a third-party verified Independent Service Provider (ISP) of PPE that is well-versed in NFPA requirements. ISPs that specialize in cleaning and repairing PPE provide a higher level of care and expertise that is most critical for urgent-risk occupations like firefighting. Correctly maintaining gear is also more cost-effective than replacing damaged garments in nearly all cases. Be it a lost button, torn strap, or splitting seam, inspecting gear before and after it sees service helps to spot damages an ISP can launder or mend often in a matter of days or just a few weeks, depending on the need.

Whenever a routine inspection determines potential damage, an advanced inspection should then be performed by a verified ISP. At a minimum, an advanced inspection is recommended annually for garments, even those not showing obvious signs of wear.

Keep gear clean

Cleaning turnout gear on a regular basis helps to remove harmful particulates and residue. Not only will the advanced fabric of the gear be better protected, but the risk of secondary exposure to toxins and carcinogens will be reduced as well.

Most fire departments do not enjoy the convenience of having a fully outfitted in-house laundering team to combat the constant onslaught of dirtied garments. Just like the clothes pile at home, grimy gear can pile up quickly, and cleaning often takes a backseat to other priorities.

Again, a verified ISP cleaning facility is the answer for maintaining gear on a schedule according to the manufacturer’s recommendation. These providers use laundry detergents formulated for the safe cleaning of turnout fabrics, reflective materials, and hardware used with PPE. Many ISP facilities also use special extractors and dryers built specifically for the task of laundering protective fabrics.

After entering a structural fire, it is critical to decontaminate and wash turnout gear immediately. Gear wash operations may also use EPA-registered laundry sanitizer to soak garments in, which eliminates lingering viruses and bacteria. Helmets, boots, gloves, and hoods must also be thoroughly cleaned, sanitized, and disinfected to ensure their integrity and avoid the risk of cross-contamination or second-hand exposure.

 

ISPs use special deep cleaning detergents formulated to take proper care of fire-resistant and other specialty fabrics while removing the accumulation of daily grime from gear being used on the job. Gear Wash, a subsidiary of Fire-Dex, uses detergents that are NFPA-compliant and environmentally safe.

Keep turnout gear in the dark

Sunlight is not kind to many types of protective garments that can be damaged by prolonged exposure to UV rays and fluorescent lighting. Thermal exposure conditions, UV radiation levels, and usage all impact the likelihood and extent of the damage; however, UV light generally contributes to the degradation of moisture barrier and flame-resistant fabrics.

Keep gear stored away from harsh lighting to better protect it, such as in a locker or on a rack away from direct light. Also, allocating proper storage for PPE makes inspections easier. This can even reduce the possibility of lost gear by making sure it’s returned to the correct spot each day.

When to replace gear

All turnout gear will eventually need to be replaced. Once the protective properties of the turnout gear have diminished, it is no longer safe to use. Implementing a rotation of when to buy new turnout gear will allow everyone to have a primary and secondary set. It’s important to replace turnout gear:

• After ten years, as recommended by NFPA 1971.

• When cleaning can not properly remove contaminants.

• When it is beyond routine repair.

• When workplace requirements change.

Fire departments can contact their local PPE cleaning and repair service provider to learn more about maintaining turnout gear for longer use. This starts by giving gear a good look before and after it is worn in the line of duty. Doing so is the first step to keeping first responders safe and healthy. 

Fire-Dex and Gear Wash offer video tutorials on proper cleaning and inspection techniques to help departments stay updated on the current standards.

Todd Herring began his journey at Fire-Dex in September 2015 as part of the acquisition of TECGEN. With over 20 years of experience in the protective textile industry, Todd was soon promoted to Director of Marketing and Product Development in August 2016. Gaining the title of Vice President of Product Innovation and Strategy in 2021, Todd currently leads the newly created Product Innovation and Strategy team. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Textile Engineering from NC State University.

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