Support for Firefighter Personal Protective Equipment

Firefighter Turnout Gear

Current Projects

The objective of this 4-year study is to improve confidence that turnout gear will remain protective throughout its lifecycle. This will be accomplished by providing evidence-based recommendations to support improvements to existing performance, care, and maintenance standards language. Specifically, this project will obtain turnout gear coats and trousers from several, regionally dispersed fire departments. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory (NPPTL) will sample up to 100 coats and 100 trousers from each participating fire department.

For each coat or trouser sampled, NIOSH will first estimate its use history using 6-months of data obtained from the National Fire Operations Reporting System (NFORS)external icon. The NFORS data will include (1) department-wide data and (2) exposure tracking information completed by the firefighters assigned to the sampled coat and trousers (e.g., number of fire-related calls, repair history, and laundering history). The 6-months of data will be used to estimate exposures since the coat or trouser was first put into service.

Once the use history for each coat or trouser is estimated, the following tests and evaluations will be performed at the NIOSH NPPTL laboratories:

  • Advanced visual inspection according to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1851 using a checklist that NIOSH developed with input from members of the fire service community.
  • Performance test according to select NFPA 1971 test methods using a procedure NIOSH developed to retrieve fabric samples from the coat or trouser and then evaluate these samples with respect to NFPA’s certification requirements.
  • Determine the concentration of organic chemicals trapped within the fabric using advanced analytical chemistry analysis methods.

These data will be analyzed, interpreted, and disseminated to the fire service community. The data produced by this study will be used to improve confidence that turnout gear will remain protective throughout its lifecycle. Specifically, evidence-based recommendations will be made to begin

  • Transitioning the existing age-based retirement standard to a performance-based criteria.
  • Incorporating additional lifecycle-related test methods into NFPA 1971 (e.g., known use conditions could be used to develop simulated aging tests).
  • Improving guidance for the field-based visual inspection of turnout gear to identify defects occurring as a result of use.
  • Determining the concentrations of carcinogens trapped in the fabric as a function of use and how these concentrations impact thermal performance.

The project team established a NIOSH Turnout Gear Lifecycle Partnership to obtain technical input regarding the study design, execution, and interpretation of results. This partnership has more than 25 stakeholder groups from the fire service community.

Several studies have investigated chemical contaminants found on structural turnout gear, post-fire. These studies have reported a variety of individual chemicals, several of which may be grouped in the following classes: polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), phthalates, and phenolics. Many chemicals in these classes are known carcinogens. Due to the prevalence of these compounds in multiple studies and their deleterious health effects, chemicals from these three classes were chosen for this quantitative study. However, there are additional classes of chemicals that will be unique to wildland contamination including terpenes and terpenoid compounds and compounds that are employed as suppressants and dropped from aerial vehicles including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

This work will specifically investigate the following specific aims:

  1. Determine chemical contaminants on wildland firefighting gear post-fire event.
  2. Compare laundering methods from NFPA 1851 with current methods used be wildland firefighters to determine if specialized equipment or cleaning is needed.
  3. Investigate passive cleaning methods to remove contaminants from wildland gear.

Persistent chemicals found on wildland firefighting clothing will be identified and investigations to determine if current laundry processes are adequate for removal of these compounds will be conducted. This information will be translated to make recommendations to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to be included in the next revision of the 1877 technical committee.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is intended to protect against many of the hazards encountered on the fireground while related equipment is supposed to allow firefighters to safely carry out their missions. Yet, the fire service is coming to the realization that structural firefighting and several other related activities are often more “HazMat” than regular hazardous materials operations. Moreover, the PPE worn, and the related equipment used by firefighters should not create hazards to the health and well-being of firefighters by being a source of continued contamination exposure. To this end, this project should provide solutions that ensure that various forms of PPE and related items can be effectively cleaned and rendered safe for reuse. In order to accomplish this goal, procedures are needed to measure the cleaning effectiveness of all items, not just turnout clothing outer shells.

The principal purpose of this project is to develop methods for assessing cleaning that can be applied to items such as helmets, hoods, gloves, footwear, and self-contained breathing apparatus as part of firefighter PPE, but may also be extended to seat covers or tools. The methodology was developed by NIOSH, under a prior DHS/AFG (CDCF Project #913) with the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) titled, “Validation of Cleaning Procedures for Firefighter Personal Protective Equipment.” The research efforts completed by NIOSH in that project effectively demonstrated cleaning efficiency for structural firefighting protective garment outer shell materials. These same methods must be modified to be applied to other parts of garments, and to very different materials in other PPE and equipment that are often contaminated differently. This PPE and equipment are further subject to very different forms of cleaning, if they are cleaned at all. Just as previously existed for turnout gear, NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, specifies very few details for cleaning all items of the ensemble and most of the cleaning approaches for different ensemble elements have not been verified, mainly because there are no methods in place that can ensure that cleaning is effective. Similarly, there is an absence of qualified cleaning assessments for measuring contaminant removal from related firefighter equipment in other pertinent standards.

In addition to creating methods that enable measurement of cleaning effectiveness for a broad range of items, an additional purpose of this project is to apply the new techniques for assessing current cleaning, decontamination, disinfection, and sanitization processes as well as to begin the investigation of newer approaches. The fire service follows practices that are perceived to be appropriate but without a quantitative assessment, these procedures are often a guess and cannot be improved without knowledge of hazardous substance processes for contamination and removal.

Lastly, the final purpose of this research is to use these findings to affect how PPE and other materials are specified and ensemble is made. Information from garment outer shell contamination and decontamination processes is already leading to proposals for how gear can be changed to resist contamination or allow more effective cleaning. The fire service and industry must have established methodologies that verify decontamination approaches that promote reliable cleaning techniques, so firefighters are not unknowingly exposed to contaminated gear, and further do not damage gear when frequently used or cleaned. Overall, the purpose of this project is to extend what was demonstrated for garment outer shells to other parts of the ensemble and related equipment.

Page last reviewed: November 5, 2019