By Chris Farrell and Curt Floyd
Ask any firefighter what is one of the most important pieces of equipment they have throughout their career, and many would tell you it is their personal protective equipment (PPE). From the very early stages of probie school to the time they retire, firefighters will have had a few sets of “turnouts,” including helmet, hood, coat, gloves, pants, and boots. These items and the way they are constructed – from the stitching in the coat and pants to the material in the inner layer, vapor barrier, and outer shell, to the lettering and other aspects that go through intensive design scrutiny, construction, testing, and maintenance – help ensure that firefighters can do their jobs safely.
But what helps guide how all these elements of PPE come together and do their job of protecting firefighters? The answer is simple: consensus-based standards.
What are consensus-based standards for first responders?
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), based in Quincy, MA, serves as the main facilitator of first responder standards in the United States. In general, a standard is a document that contains mandatory language including the word “shall,” which makes it usable as a “mandatory reference by another standard or code” or for incorporation by reference into law.
All NFPA standards are written as minimum requirements that work to ensure adequate levels of safety. It is important to note that NFPA does not write these standards. Instead, NFPA facilitates the open, consensus-based development process for more than 300 standards, including 114 that are fire-service related documents, which are typically updated every three to five years. This work is done by Technical Committees comprised of subject matter experts and a diverse range of volunteers who dedicate their time to this undertaking, operating in strict adherence to NFPA’s established standards-making process.
To learn more about how the NFPA standards process works, visit https://www.nfpa.org/Codes-and-Standards/Standards-Development/How-the-process-works
Why should firefighters have an interest in standards?
There are more than 100 NFPA codes and standards that impact each and every firefighter from the very first day they become one.
For any jurisdiction that incorporates NFPA standards into law, the fire departments within that jurisdiction must comply with those standards and the provisions within them. Even jurisdictions that do not incorporate NFPA standards by reference into law may still need to follow them as an industry best practice.
Everyone has a say as to what goes into each standard (except for NFPA employees). If you do not like a provision within a standard, you can submit an input to make a change. The process is open to the public. The NFPA standards development process allows anyone to submit input directly to the Technical Committee (TC) that is responsible for each standard. As a requirement of the NFPA process regulations, the TC must then provide a response, which may come in the form of a revision (also known as a change to the requirements) or an explanation as to why the standard was not revised. In addition, all NFPA committee meetings are open to the public, which allows anyone to witness the committee’s deliberations and, when requested, to address the committee directly. This exchange of ideas with people that are subject to or directly affected by the standard is at the core of the NFPA process.
The Emergency Response and Responder Safety Consolidation Project
One of the major projects currently underway at NFPA is the Emergency Response and Responder Safety Consolidation Project. During its April 2019 meeting, the NFPA Standards Council reviewed a consolidation plan for the NFPA Emergency Response & Responder Safety (ERRS) standards and voted to support the plan, which is designed to better serve ERRS stakeholders and create better efficiencies for the TC members that volunteer to serve this audience. This consolidation effort pertains to all NFPA Standards that the ERRS team is responsible for, including various guides and best practices that will be combined, by topic, into consolidated standards over the next five years.
The consolidation plan is being undertaken to improve the overall experience of the ERRS standards development process. This effort applies to the standards that cover everything from operational concerns, professional qualifications for responders, and the care, selection, and maintenance of PPE. The transition began in January 2020 and will take place over the next five years. By 2025, all the ERRS standards will be in their proper cycle and will reflect a well-rounded view of topics. The project was created to benefit anyone who uses NFPA ERRS standards, as well as the thousands of volunteers who work to develop these key documents.
Custom revision cycles, specifically for ERRS standards, are being developed for each group that make up the consolidation plan and individual ERRS standards will be moved into appropriate revision cycles. Users of the codes and standards want related information conveniently packaged so that they can be more efficient and effective workers. To meet these expectations, the NFPA Technical Committees will serve as designated content groups charged with producing more inclusive guidance as needed. The current standards will appear as different chapters within an “umbrella” standard.
The majority of current Technical Committee members will remain in place and maintain responsibility for the same information contained in their current standard. Of the approximate 2,000 principal and alternate Technical Committee members, a small number may find themselves serving on multiple standards that have conflicting meeting schedules however an effort will be made to avoid that. As of this time there is no plan, nor is this intended to, disband, or eliminate any current Technical Committees.
NFPA 1971 is the current firefighter PPE standard
NFPA 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Firefighting and Proximity Firefighting serves as the premier standard for firefighter PPE. The 2018 edition contains the current requirements related to firefighter PPE and is currently in its revision cycle. The Technical Committee will meet in early 2023 to discuss any further proposed changes and consider any further revisions that need to be made in the next edition of the standard.
How can you submit proposed changes to NFPA 1971 and make your voice heard?
NFPA 1971 is being consolidated into a new document NFPA 1970. Going forward, all of the requirements and information found in NFPA 1971 will be combined with NFPA 1975, Standard on Emergency Services Work Apparel; NFPA 1981, Standard on Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) for Emergency Services; and NFPA 1982, Standard on Personal Alert Safety Systems (PASS) to create a new document that will be known as NFPA 1970, tentatively titled Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting; Emergency Services Work Apparel; Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) for Emergency Services; Respirators for Wildland Fire Fighting Operations; Personal Alert Safety Systems (PASS); Breathing Air Quality for Emergency Services Respiratory Protection. (Note: The committees are likely to adopt a shorter title before final publication.) This means that you will be able to submit your suggested change(s) directly to the draft of the new, consolidated NFPA 1970 and that any proposed changes to the requirements of NFPA 1971 should be submitted to the new document NFPA 1970. You can review the First Draft Report at www.nfpa.org/1970next.
If you read the proposed changes on the First Draft Report of NFPA 1970 and wish to submit a comment, you may do so by the January 4, 2023, deadline.
In the following months, the Technical and Correlating Committees will consider all the proposed changes received by the deadline and will develop a Second Draft of NFPA 1970. NFPA anticipates that the Second Draft Reports will be posted for public review in the Fall of 2023. Throughout the process, the latest information on this standard can be found at nfpa.org/1970next, as noted above.
In addition, to stay apprised of updates to NFPA 1970 or any other standard, you can sign up for e-mail alerts at www.nfpa.org. This is the best way to be notified whenever information regarding a particular code or standard is updated, providing the latest information about any standard, including the document revision history and the development of the next edition. In addition to automatic alerts, you can access the public input submission system, apply for membership on the Technical Committee, ask a technical question (for NFPA members and public sector officials only), find related news, or see any related products in NFPA’s catalog.
Also related to firefighter PPE is a recent webinar that NFPA is making available from its website titled, “Female Firefighter Personal Protective Clothing: Investigation of Design, Comfort, and Mobility Issues” by Drs. Meredith McQuerry and Cassandra Kwon. Dr. McQuerry indicates that female firefighters have a 33% greater risk of injury than male firefighters and part of that could be due to ill-fitting gear. The study, with help from the Fire Protection Research Foundation (the research affiliate of NFPA), created the first ever database of female firefighter anthropometrics or physical measurements. This database can help manufacturers and the technical committees create better PPE for female firefighters. The webinar can be viewed for free at https://www.nfpa.org/Training-and-Events/By-type/Webinars.
Get involved and make your voice heard
Your firefighting PPE is an essential part of you being successful at what you do. It is with you for your entire journey through the fire service and it is important to understand where the requirement for its design comes from. It is also important to know that you have a say in the very standard that helps to regulate the many aspects that go into it.
Visit www.nfpa.org to learn more about the standards that affect you and other resources from NFPA that help firefighters do their job safely and effectively. Simply put, get involved and make your voice heard.
Curt Floyd is currently the Responder Technical Lead at NFPA where he works as a technical advisor on responder initiatives. Before his work at NFPA, Floyd spent 34 years in the fire service, teaching technical rescue and serving as a rescue specialist and instructor for the FEMA USAR system. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Fire Protection Engineering, graduated from the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program, and has presented on responder topics around the globe.
Chris Farrell came to NFPA more than 10 years ago, where he currently serves as the staff liaison for the NFPA PPE project. Previously, Farrell worked for the Chapel Hill Fire Department in Chapel Hill, NC and the New Hope Volunteer Fire Department in Orange County, NC.