Renting bunker gear is nothing new. Responders attending fire school often rent gear for training rather than purchasing new gear for their training.
911 Safety Equipment, based in Norristown, PA, has taken the idea one step further. Fire fighting agencies that wish to spare themselves the bookkeeping and maintenance hassles necessary to comply with NFPA standards regarding bunker gear and accessories simply furnish their firefighters gear rented from 911 Safety, said Dan Silvestri, the company’s managing partner.
“Typically, the rental service is utilized by industrial brigades or fire schools,” Silvestri said. “Where we are seeing a big increase in rentals is to municipal fire departments.”
Only six years after 911 Safety first ventured into the field, Fire Academy Rentals has become the company’s fastest growing division.
“More and more, fire departments don’t want the capital expenditure for fire gear hanging over their heads,” Silvestri said. “I can put their firefighters in compliant PPE for a fraction of the cost. Then, once a year, I bring the gear back here to clean and repair before returning it to them.”
If a firefighter leaves the department, that set of gear is returned to 911 Safety and immediately deducted from the lease. And, if the department hires a replacement, 911 Safety again steps in to provide new gear and accessories.
“I think departments get discouraged when they have to buy gear and then the firefighter leaves or puts on some weight and they have to shell out $2,000 to $3,500 again,” Silvestri said. “And factoring in the cleaning, repair and record keeping it gets expensive.”
Leasing the entire ensemble from 911 Safety can be done for less than $100 a month per firefighter, he said.
New hires are simply given the 911 Safety telephone number to order a coat, pants, gloves, helmet, hood and gear bag. If the gear does not fit when it arrives, the firefighter simply returns for a replacement at no extra charge.
New hires are simply given the 911 Safety telephone number to order a coat, pants, gloves, helmet, hood and gear bag. If the gear does not fit when it arrives, the firefighter simply returns it for a replacement at no extra charge.
“Some of the fire schools have started having us provide rope, safety glasses, extrication gloves, wildland fire fighting helmets and other wildland gear,” Silvestri said. “We solve that problem for them.”
Most important to administrators, firefighters are provided with fire gear that is compliant with NFPA 1971 and maintained to NFPA 1851.
“It takes the liability off their shoulders,” Silvestri said. “If someone gets hurt and the gear is not compliant with NFPA standards, they could run into big issues.”
Purchasing new fire gear from the manufacturer can take between six weeks to three months. Some fire departments find it advantageous to rent gear for new hires during initial training and the first few months of on-the-job probation before permanent gear is ordered.
911 Safety’s inventory of rental gear includes 1,500 sets of coats and pants, 6,000 fire hoods, 1,000 helmets and nearly 2,000 pairs of boots.
“When it comes to bunker gear, it’s always better to be a little big than a little too small,” Silvestri said. “When it’s small, the gear causes hobbling, creating further heat stress.”
Although based in a single central location, 911 Safety promises delivery in four days or less via FedEx. Replacements for returned gear are shipped immediately rather than waiting until the original gear is returned.
In an emergency, delivery time can be reduced to less than 24 hours, Silvestri said.
With regard to cleaning fire gear, Silvestri said fire departments are growing increasingly aware of the hazardous materials risks to which personnel are exposed.
“Even though NFPA 1851 has been around for 15 years, I have seen more interest in cleaning and repairing gear in the last six months to a year than I have ever seen,” he said.
Standard procedure is to first soak the outer shells and turn the liners inside out. Then the shells and liners are washed separately in a large extractor, pulling out carcinogens and hydrocarbons. After going through three separate rinse cycles, the gear is air dried.
“The moisture barrier for each garment is tested in six areas for water penetration,” Silvestri said.”
Professionals trained to deal with fire gear are on standby to make any repairs before the shells and liners meet again. The ensemble is then barcoded and entered into an online tracking system before being returned.
Hazmat decontamination takes even more effort, Silvestri said.
“We can handle fuels, hydraulic fluids and solvents like toluene,” he said. “We can handle blood.”
But decontamination can be rough on fire gear, requiring additional repairs.
“If you’re cleaning fuel, you might lose your trim,” Silvestri said. “You’re definitely going to lose all the leather on the garment.”
Repair specialist training takes months for a basic repair and years to fix more advanced damage. 911 Safety personnel routinely visit the leading fire gear manufacturers to study how the garments are made.
Third-party verification of the quality of 911 Safety’s work by Underwriters Laboratories or Intertek is a difficult process, Silvestri said.
“You send the third-party inspector an example of a seam,” he said. “The inspector damages the seam, then returns it for repair. When we send the repair back, it is tested to meet NFPA 1951 standards.”
While many departments choose to take care of routine cleaning themselves, it remains a good idea to do a professional cleaning and inspection with a verified inspection scheduling program at least once a year, Silvestri said.
With regard to rentals, 911 Safety has finally turned the corner on profitability, Silvestri said.
“It was a real challenge for the first few years,” he said. “It was a big capital expenditure. You had to have every size possible on hand. Are you going to get 50 firefighters with a 36-inch waist? How about 20 firefighters with a 54-inch chest?”
Silvestri said he and his partners were in the rental business for the long haul.
“We put together a business model that made sense,” he said. “Then we went for it.”