“Water or sweat trapped in the gear, instead of air, makes for not only poor insulation but also conducts heat from fire to the wearer, potentially causing burns. If heated enough, the water can be quickly vaporized into much hotter stream causing severe burns.”
Although methods vary, turnout gear must be dry when returned to service after washing or used on consecutive calls or training exercises. This can be challenging because of the time it takes to dry and the uncertainty of when the next use will be. Turnout gear is supposed to have air within its layers to help insulate the wearer from external heat. Water or sweat trapped in the gear, instead of air, makes for not only poor insulation but also conducts heat from fire to the wearer, potentially causing burns. If heated enough, the water can be quickly vaporized into much hotter stream causing severe burns.
A secondary problem with moisture in turnout gear is the added weight a firefighter must carry around promoting additional heat stress, a common cause of early heart failure.
In addition to burns and extra weight, mold, mildew and bacteria growing on or in turnout gear from incomplete drying could be harmful to breath in, may cause skin irritation and rashes while weakening the fabrics of the turnout gear. I have asked many firefighters if air-dried turnout gear ever smells of mold or mildew. Firefighters who use fans in some way to help in the drying process usually say “no.” However, on a few occasions, others have remarked about the bad smell associated with air-drying, especially during the humid months of the summer or if their gear was packed away before it was completely dry.
The NFPA 1851 standard does not suggest a specific drying method. Each section of the standard, related to laundering turnout gear, begins with the recommendation to first follow the turnout gear manufacturer’s care instructions and then refer to the NFPA recommendations if there is a question or incomplete instructions. Those recommendations include using low — below 105 degrees Fahrenheit — to no heat when drying turnout gear. If a drying tumbler is used, do not completely dry the turnout gear with heated air. The turnout gear is to be removed and air-dried the rest of the way or the tumbler is to be switched to no heat at some unspecified point in the dry cycle. Excess heat and sunlight deteriorates the different layers of turnout gear and is to be avoided in the drying process. When tumbling the gear, it is prescribed to fasten all closures. Some firefighters turn the gear inside out too. This seems to lesson wear and tear from the mechanical action of a drying tumbler and causes the inside to dry first reducing the likelihood of burn from steam and heat conduction.
Typical Drying Methods
Air-drying turnout gear can be seen as a simple and cost free option provided there is adequate time before the next use or back up sets of gear are on hand. Air-drying takes a number of forms from spreading gear out in the station house, taking it home to dry or hanging it in an open-air storage rack. Separating the layers and using some type of fan to move air over the pieces shortens the process. The downside is where firefighters have commented on how much space and time is required to do this after a big incident or training session where many sets of gear are wet or get washed in a short period of time.
Drying turnout gear at home or in the station house with a small home-type dryer is a questionable option because of restricted airflow over the bulky gear and high heat levels. Residential dryers vary; some may be better suited to the task than others — for instance, if there is a no-heat setting. If heat is used, the low setting from the factory is likely at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which is beyond the NFPA standard and the recommendation of many turnout gear manufactures. High heat on moisture barriers causes visible burring, cracking and delaminating of the layers and ruins the piece.
Big dryers, also called drying tumblers like those used in a laundromat, are not uncommon in firehouses and do not seem to be discouraged by the NFPA. Electric heat is preferred over gas because of the risk of igniting something flammable left on the turnout gear, whether it was washed or wet for some other reason. However, having better options available, like drying cabinets causes us in the laundry business to believe the mechanical action of a drying tumbler to be hard on turnout gear even when heat is managed. We know that in some applications like with hotels, linen deterioration from tumble-drying is a notable concern. Over time, the mechanical tumble action on linens causes fiber loss. Replacing thinning linens costs money so the industry has sought to reduce the rate of deterioration through the use of smarter dryers and higher spin speed washers. If purchasing a drying tumbler for turnout gear and heated drying is likely to be used, programmable heat settings — because standard heat setting are too high for turnout gear — as well as auto dry protection are available options on many models and should be considered.
Some fire station houses have a fire hose drying cabinet and use that to dry turnout gear. Though likely not designed for this purpose, this sounds OK as long as temperature can be limited to a turnout gear safe limit and gear components can be hung or spread out inside in some manner that promotes complete drying. If your station does not have a hose drying cabinet and is considering this as an option for drying turnout gear exclusively, there are more cost effective options as hose drying cabinets can cost as much as double that of turnout gear specific drying cabinets.
And what if five or six sets of turnout gear could be dried in two to three hours at a time while your station remains uncluttered by gear and perhaps absent of noisy fans? With turnout gear specific drying cabinets, everything is optimized to preserve the life of your gear, save energy and dry as safely and quickly as possible. Drying cabinets have tubular hangers to dress the turnout gear pieces allowing air to circulate through and around the outside of the gear without harsh mechanical action. Drying cabinets heat with electric heat doing away with the concern of igniting flammable materials left behind on the gear. Because the drying cabinets are set up for low heat levels and do not have drive motors, they require less amperage and smaller utility connections. A small tumbler drying just one set of gear at a time requires at least as much amperage draw to operate as does a drying cabinet drying several sets of gear including gloves and boots.
Unlike an improvised drying method, the PPE drying cabinets are factory designed and manufactured to aesthetically fit into the stationhouse amidst your other beautiful firefighting equipment. The limitations of PPE drying cabinets are that not everyone knows about them and they may appear to cost more than other options. I say, “appear to cost more” because although there are many different situations, often savings in one area can offset an additional cost in another. These savings may include the additional cost of larger utility connections for an electric tumbler as compared to a drying cabinet, the time and energy of being able to dry more turnout gear per cycle as well as your turnout gear lasting longer and you needing fewer backup sets per firefighter in order to always be ready.
Whatever your situation, you can get help finding a solution to your particular need by contacting a commercial laundry equipment supplier who has experience working with fire stations and processing turnout gear. Listening to your concerns, explaining available options, visiting your site to help evaluate the details of installation and service after the sale are important characteristics to look for.
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.