Article Archive
Tougher NFPA standards and new federal studies mean changes in protective clothing
Volume 23, No. 1

The protective clothing industry does not sit still. As a new year comes, there are a number of developments and issues facing firefighters that define their level of protection. What is acceptable thermal exposure for an industrial firefighter wearing bunker gear? Does current clothing protect against all circumstances? Should firefighter station wear serve as secondary PPE? Is arbitrarily retiring bunker gear after 10-years service a reasonable precaution against catastrophic failure? Jeff Stull of International Personnel Protection (PPE) says these questions and many more are currently hot topics when discussing the future of personal protective equipment. This comes in the face of changing NFPA standards and new studies being conducted by federal agencies.

"NIOSH is taking a bigger role," Stull said. "They are running a large project now looking into the phenomenon of 'Stored Energy,' which examines ways of testing and predicting when firefighters may be burned under ordinary fireground conditions." The project involves the development of a new test and an evaluation program being conducted at North Carolina State University, which has historically been on the leading edge on clothing and material testing. The NC State Textile and Clothing Protection and Comfort Center (TPACC) is working to better predict and understand those circumstances where firefighters are burned without any apparent damage to their clothing. The program is aimed at establishing a new test method and setting criteria for burn protection in the next edition of NFPA 1971, the standard that covers firefighter protective clothing.

Stull, president of IPP, is a consultant who provides expertise on the design, evaluation, selection and use of personal protective clothing and equipment. He is the chairman of the American Society for Testing and Materials F23 Committee on Protective Clothing, a member of the National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee on Hazardous Materials Protective Clothing and Equipment, and participant in the government's Interagency Board for Equipment Standardization and Interoperability. Stull is also one of the key players in Project HEROES, one of two federally funded CBRN/turnout gear projects intended to take CBRN protection - chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear -- to the next level.

In a recent interview with Industrial Fire World, Stull listed numerous areas regarding personal protective clothing that are areas of increasing concern. Interest in the stored energy issue by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health is only one of them. As part of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, NIOSH is the main U.S. federal agency responsible for conducting research into occupational safety and health matters.

In the course of his consulting work, Stull said he has had the opportunity to examine first hand an alarming phenomenon - firefighters being seriously burned inside their bunker gear without any apparent damage to the garment. These injuries are beyond the steam and scalding burns that might be expected.

"Imagine you have heat built up in the clothing and all of a sudden it gets compressed against the individual's skin," Stull said. "The result is the person gets burned with no damage to the clothing."

Recently, Stull had the opportunity to examine the protective clothing worn at a large metropolitan fire department by firefighters who were injured while battling a rowhouse fire. "Amazingly, three of them suffered relatively minor injuries and were released in a day or so," Stull said. "The firefighter who had the worst burn injuries had absolutely no damage to his protective clothing. There are certain characteristics in clothing that are not being addressed by the standard and it is important to identify these characteristics so that firefighters can be fully aware of their gear limitations and how to avoid burn injuries under ordinary fireground conditions."

NIOSH has also undertaken a project to understand how long bunker gear and other protective clothing can be safely used. Stull said another area of concern is that PPE provide the same level of performance for its expected service.

"Fire departments invest considerable resources in their clothing and with firefighters taking a closer look at their gear, they are now asking questions as to how long the clothing will properly provide protection. Stull said, "A recently introduced new edition of an NFPA 1851, the standard on selection, care, and maintenance of structural gear, institutes more rigorous inspection procures and mandates a 10-year retirement based on the manufacture date of the clothing." This has created some controversy as departments have to devote more resources to properly caring for and maintaining protective clothing and has upset some departments, which are trying to stretch the use of their gear past 10 years. However, Stull said "The new requirements are an extension of the fire service evolution in properly managing their gear; it was not too long ago that clothing was rarely washed and dirty clothing was perceived as a 'badge of honor.'" The changing requirements now dictate that departments carefully examine the interior of their liners after three years in service. This requires specialized testing equipment to make sure the moisture barrier is still effective in holding out liquids.

The NIOSH project was established to help better define requirements up front when the clothing is manufactured to help ensure that clothing provides the expected service life. "Many of the requirements in the clothing standards are best guesses to set requirements that will adequately protect firefighters in most, but not all situations. Approaches for addressing durability have always been difficult due to unlimited range of conditions that firefighters face during emergencies." The NIOSH project is looking into how to establish test requirements that account for durability for clothing, which in turn will provide a better basis for getting the best service life out of gear. The mandatory 10-year retirement for clothing addresses the issue only from the fire department side. "Ten years after the manufacture date that item is supposed to be taken out of service," Stull said. "That includes not just the bunker gear but items such as helmets as well."

PPE beyond the 10-year expiration date can still be used for training, but not for live fire operations. If used gear is donated to another agency, such as a volunteer fire department, the clock is still running on the 10-year rule.

It's always good to err on the side of safety, he said. However, this protective clothing is so encumbering and stressful to wear that it adversely affects how well responders can operate. In the future, PPE makers will be looking at more trade offs to make the gear easier to work in while maintaining an acceptable amount of protection, Stull said. One area being examined more closely is the level of barrier protection. Stull says that some of the new chemical requirements for CBRN first responder gear are too rigorous, limiting material choices and making the gear more stressful than it needs to be. At the heart of the issue is the permeation test used to measure how well barrier materials keep out toxic industrial chemicals. Stull contends that these levels are much too conservative.

NIOSH is also involved in a project with Stull's company with monies provided by the Technical Support Working Group, a government group that supports fast track project for supporting first responder equipment development needs. The project involves setting skin exposure levels that are based on their toxicity just the same way that respiratory protection is approached. The project will redefine how manufacturers make claims for chemical protection and involve new tests that are easier to conduct with more meaningful results.

The industry has already shifted over to mandatory CBRN as part of SCBA. The criteria, originally developed by NIOSH, were implemented as part of the most recent edition of NFPA 1981, which address certification of open-circuit self-contained breathing apparatus. Currently, choices remain limited - only a handful of SCBA units on the market now meet the CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) requirement of NFPA 1981, Stull said. However, more and more SCBA are coming onto the market for fire departments to choose.

Almost as important as SCBA under the right conditions is the PASS alarm. These devices went through a fairly significant change recently, Stull said. "There were some complaints through the NIOSH firefighter fatality investigation program that PASS devices were not being heard," Stull said. "After an investigation into the matter, NIOSH and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) found out that the sound emitter did not always function under certain conditions of moisture and heat."

The result was new criteria under NFPA 1982 to address the issue.

"It was a good thing that the problem was found and corrected in the standards process," Stull said. NIOSH is taking an increasing role in fostering improvements in standards to address first responder needs.

"This is a good thing for the firefighter as the federal government through NIOSH is putting resources forward to advance firefighter and other first responder health and safety,"????? Stull said.????????????????????????????????????????????????????

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