Strict stopwatch governs protective clothing
Volume 24, No. 1
Pressed for resources amidst worsening economic forecasts, fire departments complying with the newly updated NFPA 1851 standard face much more stringent timelines for retiring and replacing expensive personal protective equipment, said Pete Nicholas of Quaker Safety, a PPE manufacturer.
“The 2008 edition requires that PPE be retired within 10 years of manufacture,” Nicholas said. “For proximity outer shells, the lifespan is now only five years.”
This change comes at a time when federal dollars funneled to fire departments are in rapid decline compared to recent years. In 2007, Assistance to Firefighter Grants through the Department of Homeland Security reached 5,088 municipalities for a total of $494,221,826. As of early December, the total for 2008 is 1,444 municipalities receiving $136,564,911 in AFG funding.
The competitive AFG program is designed to enhance first responders’ ability to protect the health and safety of the public, as well as that of first-responder personnel. As a result, much of that money has gone into funding PPE .
“After 9/11, the federal government became very concerned about domestic preparedness and made as much as $750 million available annually for fire departments to buy fire trucks, PPE and training,” Nicholas said.
Industrial emergency responders will be on the same time table as municipal responders, he said.
“For the most part, industrial responders use their PPE most extensively for training,” Nicholas said. “I would suspect there are brigades with PPE hanging in their lockers that is more than ten years old, but has had limited wear.”
With the date of manufacture as a starting line, industrial fire brigades will now have to keep records on the age of PPE and establish annual inspections to remove from service PPE not in conformance with NFPA 1851, he said.
“If it weren’t for the standard, I think a lot of brigades would have a hard time getting their plant management to approve new PPE ,” Nicholas said. “With NFPA 1851 they are able to say ‘Look, we have to do this.’”
Use differs from department to department, he said. A metropolitan fire department might get three to four years from their gear, but a smaller department with less use might get five to 10 years out of it.
However, some factors attack PPE regardless of use. All PPE is susceptible to environmental factors such as ultraviolet light which tends to degrade polymers over time. Moisture is another enemy of PPE , Nicholas said.
“Typically, the moisture barrier is the thing that wears out first,” he said. “Think about the tires on your automobile. Any rubber product is going to experience dry rot over time just from exposure to the environment. The same thing happens to protective gear.”
NFPA 1851 now requires tougher inspection of PPE on a regular basis. Routine inspection must be done by the wearer after each use. Advanced cleaning and inspection must be done annually. After three years, the integrity of the moisture barrier must be inspected annually. Also subject to closer inspection is the thermal barrier.
“That’s actually pretty revolutionary,” Nicholas said. “The concern was that if the moisture barrier has lost its integrity, the wearer would be more susceptible to steam burns. If the thermal barrier loses its integrity, the gear is not going to be as protective.”
The thermal barrier provides the bulk of the gear’s thermal protection, he said. If the thermal barrier’s batting develops thin spots the level of protection is reduced.
Another concept defined in NFPA 1851 is the requirement that a verified independent service provider (“verified ISP ”) or the fire department’s trained personnel perform the advanced cleaning and inspection of PPE .
A certification organization such as SEI or Underwriter’s Laboratories verifies the capabilities of the independent service provider. Fire department personnel can be trained by either verified ISP or the PPE manufacturer.
“The advanced cleaning and inspection is done at least once a year when the gear is three years from the manufacture date,” Nicholas said. “The only people who can do these inspections are a verified ISP , or someone with the fire department certified as receiving training on advanced inspection and cleaning.”
Most important, NFPA 1851 is a way to insure uniformity in the quality of PPE repairs and cleaning.
“Fire departments can’t just hire any cleaning and repair service,” Nicholas said. “It has to be a verified ISP to meet the standard. I’m sure it will make it more expensive because becoming certified has a cost. But how else can we assure consistency?”