Article Archive
Volume 13 Issue 1

Remember the 1970s. Catch words like "boogie," "ciao" and `vibes' were popular. You still needed a turntable to play your favorite music. And at refineries and petrochemical plants across America protective clothing for firefighters was as shiny as anything found on the disco dance floor.

That aluminized fire gear, commonly referred to as "silvers," disappeared from most plants in the 1980s. However, it might be making a big comeback soon. A widely overlooked change in the National Fire Protection Association standard for protective clothing has been recognized by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as requiring the use of aluminized fire gear industry-wide.

"...NFPA No. 1971-1975 set specifications for protective clothing for structural (interior) fire fighting, while NFPA No. 1976 (Published in 1992) sets specifications for protective equipment for proximity fire fighting," a letter issued Jan. 12, 1998, by OSHA's directorate of compliance programs states.

"Based on the definition of proximity fire fighting, we believe firefighters in refineries and petrochemical plants should wear protective clothing as specified by NFPA 1976 when fighting fires involving flammable liquids or gases in bulk." (See the complete text of the OSHA letter in this issue.)


How did this happen? In 1980, OSHA set its first standards for industrial fire brigades. With reference to protective clothing, OSHA 1910.156, subpart L, section (e), part (ii) deals with body protection. It states that the "performance, construction, and testing of fire-resistive coats and protective trousers shall be at least equivalent to the requirements of (NFPA) standard NFPA No. 1971-1975, `Protective Clothing for Structural Fire Fighting...' " By falling back on this existing standard, OSHA forced industry firefighters to reluctantly surrender their aluminized gear despite its excellent safety and performance record in favor of standard structural fire fighting gear.

Today, NOMEX, PBI and other materials have pushed aluminized gear into the history books at industrial plants. Because NFPA standards rarely effect industrial fire fighting, most industryfire chiefs were oblivious that, in 1992, NFPA passed a whole new set of standards for protective gear. NFPA No. 1976 differentiates between structural fires and fires more common to industry. The new standard states that its purpose is to "provide minimum performance requirements for proximity protective clothing worn by firefighters primarily responsible for aircraft rescue and fire fighting, bulk flammable liquids fire fighting, flammable gas fire fighting, and singular situations releasing high levels of radiant heat."

The clothing that meets NFPA No. 1976 is basically the same protective clothing that passed NFPA No. 1971-1975 with one important difference -- an aluminized outer coating.

The letter issued by OSHA in response to a Sept. 25, 1997, request from Industrial Fire World publisher David White, states that employers are under legal obligation to provide the correct gear under the Occupational Safety and Health Act's General Duty Clause, 29 U.S.C. ?654(a). However, a survey conducted by Industrial Fire World of industrial fire chiefs and safety officials indicates overwhelming opposition to a return to aluminized gear. A grass roots movement to amend the existing NFPA standard during its current revision process is in the works. The next meeting of the NFPA No. 1976 committee is scheduled for late February in El Paso.

The following represents a cross-section of opinion on this issue:


Industry needs to be more involved in the drafting of standards that affect it. That is one point of universal agreement regarding the revision of NFPA No. 1976.

NFPA standards are developed by technical committees made up of volunteers representing differing interest groups, said Bruce Teele, NFPA's senior fire service safety specialist. NFPA's standard-making system has two periods of public review. The first comes at the beginning of development of a new document or a revision cycle for an existing document. Once the new or revised document is drafted, that version is also circulated for public review, Teele said.

"As we explained to David White back in October, (NFPA No.) 1976 is open for public proposal as it enters its revision cycle," Teele said. "If industry wants to see changes in 1976 they can submit proposals directed at any particular paragraphs, section or chapter."

John Granby, vice president of service marketing for Lion Apparel's protective systems group, served as the secretary for the committee that created the NFPA No. 1976 standard. Input from concerned parties that would have to live with the new standard was hard to obtain, he said.

"When the standard was developed, a request went out to industry for user input," Granby said. "The user input was difficult to get. What we got back was, for the most part, from the military and from a few civilian sites."

Much of the military's fire exposure, especially the Air Force and Navy, was in aircraft accidents, Granby said. Hence, much of NFPA No. 1976 was aimed at aircraft crash fire and rescue.

"We broadened the original definition (of 1976) from ARFF to proximity fire fighting to include aircraft and other potential exposures," Granby said.

Wayne Sibley, fire chief for DFW International Airport serving Dallas and Fort Worth, prefers aluminized fire fighting gear. He also served on the 1976 committee. His department, a 335-member public service agency that handles fire and police duties, uses aluminized gear out of preference, both for structural fires and aircraft crash rescue.

"To me, proximity is the only way to go with high radiant heat fire where you've got petroleum burning," Sibley said. "I would say you can get 20 to 30 feet closer to the fire with proximity gear than you can with structural. It gives you a greater safety margin."

Aluminized gear available today is as lightweight as structural fire fighting gear, Sibley said. The cost is also comparable. The NFPA No. 1976 standard is exactly the same as the previous NFPA No. 1971, save that the structural gear comes with a reflective aluminized coating, he said.

"The structure of the outfit is the same," Sibley said. "All the barriers, everything, are the same. It just has to have the aluminized shell."


Proximity fire fighting is defined in NFPA No. 1976 as "specialized fire fighting operations that can include the activities of rescue, fire suppression and property conservation at incidents involving fires producing very high levels of conductive, convective and radiant heat; such as aircraft fires, bulk flammable gas fires, and bulk flammable liquid fires." Lynn Baldwin, fire chief of the 250,000 barrels a day Star Enterprise refinery in Port Arthur, TX, said that aircraft fire and rescue and fighting a tank or flange fire in a refinery are two different things.

"We don't fight the kind of fires they fight, even though we fight large flammable liquid fires," Baldwin said. "We are not in close proximity to them. We go in and set up large hose, large monitors and surround and drown the fire, more or less. If we have to go in and block a valve we've got everything cooled down."

Star Enterprise maintains a small amount of aluminized gear for specialized use by other departments in the plant.

"We have proximity suits that you wear over bunker gear if you want to get up to a real high radiant heat fire and do something," Baldwin said. "We keep four or five sets of those. We loan them to our maintenance people in the plant when they have to work on hot pumps or things like that. They put it on over their NOMEX. It's strictly good for a little flash or radiant heat that is around."

Heat is Baldwin's main concern about using aluminized gear -- not radiant heat, but Texas heat. Aluminized gear simply is not as breathable, he said. It will force incident commanders to rotate firefighters more frequently to give them a chance to rest and get water.

"Once things are under control we might be on the scene for three or four hours on standby," Baldwin said. "You've got people in aluminized bunker gear who are going to be passing out."


Durability is the chief drawback sited regarding aluminized gear. To give proximity gear its aluminized coating, aluminium dust is deposited by vacuum onto a thin, fragile film. That film is then laminated to the fire-resistant fabric being used. The film is easily damaged through normal wear and tear.

Sibley said his department replaces its aluminized gear every five years.

"As far as durability is concerned, we have more problems with it in structural fires than aircraft fires in that you don't have to do as much crawling in an airplane," Sibley said. "In a structural building you might have to get down and crawl stairs and things like that. If you get on your knees it takes the silver off and messes up the reflectability."

Because the aluminium coats proximity fire fighting gear is made from fire-resistant fiber there is no immediate danger to the firefighter, Sibley said. Still, from the point of the added protection reflectivity provides, the suit has been damaged. Another problem in using aluminized gear for both structural and aircraft rescue is that Texas requires structural gear to meet NFPA standards. However, under NFPA No. 1976, aluminized gear can not have reflective stripes.

"We would start to fight the fires with reflective stripes on our training gear and that reflective material, not the aluminized stuff, would burn," Sibley said. "We got so close to the fire that it would burn off (the stripes) on our reflective clothes."

Chief Danny Snell, hazmat coordinator for the Houston Fire Department, said he does not believe that NFPA No. 1976 will have any impact on municipal firefighters called in to fight an industrial fire.

"I don't think that OSHA would ever expect the fire service across the nation to change gear in the middle of the stream for something like this," Snell said. "I don't care what the NFPA standard says. The scope of the committee was to write a standard for the application and design of that type of gear and not to specify when it should have to be worn."

Baldwin said the safety record in industrial fire fighting does not support making such a drastic change. NFPA statistics show that only 29 industrial firefighters died on duty in a 19-year period ending in 1996. United States Fire Administration statistics for the same period show that 2,312 career and volunteer firefighters died on duty during the same period.

Only three of the 29 industrial firefighters died from burn, statistics show. All three of those firefighters died battling forest fires rather than a strictly industrial emergency.

"Our safety record speaks for itself in industry as far as people getting hurt or killed," Baldwin said. "We just haven't had that. I've been in this fire department 26 years. We've never gotten anybody seriously hurt on our brigade and we've had our share of major fires."


Supported by industry polling conducted by Industrial Fire World, written proposals to remove the words "bulk flammable liquid," "bulk flammable gas" and "high radiant heat" from NFPA No. 1976 will be submitted to the revision committee in El Paso, in effect limiting the application of NFPA No. 1976 to aircraft crash and rescue fire fighting. To coordinate that revision effort, industrial entities affected by NFPA No. 1976 have formed the Industrial Fire & Emergency Response Working Group.

The group's goal is to present a unified position on standards effecting industry. Beside NFPA No. 1976, the group is studying NFPA No. 1901, a standard that merges fire apparatus and industrial foam trucks.

"Everyone who is a member of this working group is now being tasked with keeping up with NFPA and OSHA so we don't have these surprises in the future," White said.

The Sabine-Neches Chief Association is a mutual aid organization serving the Beaumont-Port Arthur area in East Texas. Baldwin, president of the association, said members have agreed to make representation on NFPA committees a priority in the future.

"I guess we have just never seen a need to have someone on these committees, but now that it is affecting us more and more it looks like we are going to have to get some people on these committees to start talking for industry," Baldwin said.


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