High tech washing for high tech turnout gear?

CarolinaFireJournal - By John Gary
By John Gary
01/23/2014 -

As an equipment supplier, we have seen the awareness among firefighters about NFPA Standards related to the care of turnout gear grow in recent years. Caring for turnout gear has much to do with keeping it clean like any other garment.


The prescribed washing of turnout gear minimizes the dangers from blood borne pathogens and the buildup of soot. This soot is a less obvious concern but is still a hazard for a number of reasons. Soot produced by modern structure fires is capable of catching fire itself, and even causing serious health problems like cancer. This is due to the extensive use of synthetics, plastics and other chemicals found in homes today over the natural materials like wood and natural fabrics of the past. In summary, soiled turnout gear can be hazardous to the firefighter and others who come in contact with soiled turnout gear — even those needing help during rescue operations.

Knowing that soiled turnout gear must be cleaned is important, but also just as important is when, where, and how to clean it safely and effectively. Since turnout gear is a garment like other clothing worn on the body, it might seem obvious that it should be washed and dried like any other laundry. However, with high tech fabrics, watertight moisture barriers, heavy fasteners, and bulkiness, home washing machines and dryers that would tumble dry the gear are considered unsuitable. Since the soot and other debris on the exterior of the gear is potentially hazardous, commercial operations like laundromats and dry cleaners become public safety risks because of cross contamination with other laundry and the likeliness of improper handling. Therefore, a best practice is to wash soiled turnout gear on return to the station in a dedicated machine configured specifically for this purpose.

When making procurement decisions about equipment to launder turnout gear, fire chiefs, logistics officers and even designers of new station houses often ask early on for the simplest machine. A reason for this is the foreknowledge that a number of different people who may or may not be familiar with doing laundry will be using the equipment. Together with this is a perception that the simpler machine will have less to go wrong because no computers are obviously present and the machine is controlled by only a few mechanical push buttons or a selector knob.

The simpler washer extractor option has been around a long time and is sometimes known in the industry as a four-cycle machine because it usually only has four cycles. The operation of this machine has relied on a mechanical timer made up of a complicated array of motor driven gears and is inflexible to wash-cycle modification. However, with printed circuit boards (computers) replacing the mechanical components in recent years, the mechanically controlled machine has become a design of the past leaving us with no internally simple machine. Therefore the choice is perhaps narrowed in some way to either a fixed cycle computer or one that can be programmed for specific needs.

Some fire houses have adopted fully programmable washer extractors forgetting the notion that they are too complicated or have more to go wrong or even that there is a cost savings to be had by using a basic option. They have matched a high tech cleaning solution to their high tech turnout gear and found that being able to customize the machine to their purpose is a better choice with more possibilities.

It is true that programmable washers have a different type of control panel that may appear unfriendly on first sight. Instead of a labeled cycle selector, programmable machines most often have a 10 digit keypad with little or no helps. The keypad requires the user to know and then enter a cycle number before starting the machine. But if cycle number “three” is the posted heavily soiled turnout gear cycle, there is no complication. The best temperature, soak, agitation and spin segments have been pre-chosen for the user, eliminating guesswork. The firefighter doesn’t have to remember what temperature to use or worry that a generic cycle might harm the gear.

Once programmed by the equipment or chemical provider, additional programming is rarely needed and is almost never done by the user. Custom programmed cycles allow for a vastly expanded functionality over a fixed cycle machine. Some of this functionality can be realized in additional wash and rinse cycles, variable water levels, variable agitation and spin speeds as well as automatic soap injection coordinated by the cycle program in the machine. In short, modern high tech programmable washer extractors make it possible to not only get more out of the machine but also follow what is specified for maximum life and performance by the turnout gear manufacture.

It is not uncommon, once the capability is available, that as many as a dozen custom cycles are programmed into a station house washer extractor ranging over different soil levels and different types of loads; think outer shell versus moisture barriers as two different types of wash and therefore two different types of cycle. Short rinse cycles can be added as separate cycles to flush out the stainless steel innards of the machine between loads further reducing the risk of cross contamination. What’s more is that digital programmable machines often include diagnostic help that tell the service provider what maintenance is required, saving out-of-service time and money.

An Obvious Conclusion

The evolving firefighter’s turnout gear ensemble or maybe better said, personal protection equipment, is a crucial component of the firemen’s business. Together with the commercial laundry equipment needed to safely clean the gear, a significant investment for the station is represented. The washer extractor by itself will be bolted to the floor as a semi-permanent installation and has a 15 to 20 year expected service life. While no one can claim to manufacture a washer that is certified or approved by the NFPA, a more flexible programmable model may be better suited to meet your needs now and later. If you are thinking about adding or replacing a washer extractor for washing turnout gear, be sure to ask about today’s programmable washer extractors.

John Gary is a representative for T&L Equipment Sales Company, Inc., a distributor and parts and service provider of commercial laundry equipment. Gary has nearly 10 years experience working as a consultant and sales person with fire stations, dry cleaners, hotels, laundromats and other facilities where commercial laundry and dry cleaning equipment and related services are needed. John regularly helps clients and customers with design layouts, sizing and financing of equipment. He can be reached through T&L Equipment at 800-423-7937.
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