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NFPA 1851 Updates To Reduce the Risk of Cancer in Firefighters

Firefighters face a 9% increase in cancer diagnoses and a 14% increase in cancer-related deaths, compared to the general population in the US, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

The risk of developing cancer and heart diseases is increased by exposure to contaminants during a fire. However, personal protective equipment (PPE) can become a source of danger, retaining chemical substances long on the fire ground and then releasing those substances after firefighters have left the scene.

For nearly two decades the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has been establishing PPE care and use guidelines for the fire service. NFPA 1851 was created to support better care and maintenance practices to ensure proper protection and limit fire ground contamination to firefighters.

Released in August 2019, the 2020 version of the NFPA 1851 establishes more robust cleaning and decontamination methods for PPE to be used by firefighters and imposes new requirements to verify the effectiveness of cleaning procedures used to remove contaminants from PPE.

Here is what you need to know:

From its first edition dating 2001, NFPA 1851 – Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting has been regulating how the fire services should take care of gear to provide optimal protection under the worst fire ground circumstances. The standard sets requirements for how fire departments select, track, inspect, clean, repair, store and retire PPE. It provides guidelines as part of a nonmandatory informative annex about how to meet the requirements to ensure continued equipment performance over its service life.

From its first edition’s release, NFPA 1851 has been updated four times. The latest edition establishes strong requirements for cleaning and repairing the PPE used by fire services, imposing a new cleaning efficacy check method. This helps evaluate the effectiveness of the cleaning procedures for PPE decontamination.

While at the scene

NFPA 1851’s last updates focus on contamination control that is related to cancer and fire ground exposure. This edition of NFPA 1851 further presents detailed guidance to help fire departments on how to decide on the appropriate types of cleaning and decontamination.

One requirement added to the standard established required preliminary exposure reduction at the fire scene, which is also called gross decontamination. It implies rinsing firefighters off while still at the scene or using dry brushing to remove exterior contaminants. The next step is the isolation of the gear, before the advanced cleaning. In addition, contaminated protective clothing elements cannot be transported inside the apparatus cab or personal vehicle unless in a protective bag or case.

Though such methods may not be always practical, specific recommendations are offered for equipment decontamination procedures and handling under different circumstances.

How often do you clean your PPE?

If former NFPA 1851 editions required fire departments to perform one advance cleaning per year, then the latest edition advises them to go through this procedure whenever clothing is soiled or contaminated, more specifically, when exposed to products of combustion, such as fire gases and smoke particles.

As the increased frequency of advanced cleaning will bring up the expenses of fire departments, following the new requirements might be a problem for many units. 

Advanced cleaning regulations

Advanced cleaning should be performed either with internal capabilities, at independent service providers (ISPs), or both. These procedures must be performed using washer-extractors, which are dedicated laundry machines that meet the specific requirements of NFPA 1851. They are generally created for industrial end-users having preset formulations for servicing different types of turnout gear: outer shells, liners, heavy soil cycles, presoak cycles or washing other firefighter PPE items. 

NFPA 1851 washing machines have a frontloading design and are required to have a wash load capacity of over 30 pounds. The washer-extractors must be programmable and must not exceed a specified acceleration (high G-forces above 100 G that can damage moisture barriers and other clothing components).  They permit adjustable applications of detergent, water temperature, water level and types of cycles.

Why are typical wash machines forbidden?

Typical top-loading machines are prohibited, as they either use insufficient volumes of water, damage turnout clothing through the use of a central agitator, or simply have inefficient cleaning capabilities.

NFPA 1851 washing machines have large capacities, being able to wash several sets of gear after the clothing items. These clothing items are separated into outer shells and liners, which is undertaken to avoid cross-contamination and prevent damage that the outer shell can cause to linings from repeated contact with exterior hardware and hook and loop closure tape.

Although the wash temperature for advanced cleaning is limited to 105 F, water heaters must produce hotter temperatures to ensure that this temperature is attained inside the wash drum of the washer-extractor. Washer-extractor drainage should also receive special consideration, as extraction steps within formulations following wash and rinse cycles push large volumes of water out of the machine rapidly.

Do firefighters wash their turnout gear after structural events?

A 2018 survey conducted by the University of Miami, indicated that only 72 of the 482 firefighters routinely clean their PPE at the station following a fire. Firefighters participating in the survey showed their concern about the long amount of time it took to wash their turnout gear since many departments have only one washer-extractor at their station or sometimes shared among several stations. They also complained about the negative impact of wearing wet gear since clothing is generally air-dried which occurs because most firefighters have only one set of PPE. These firefighters complained that wet gear is harder to don and increases their risk of steam burns when worn during the next fire exposure event.

Specific cleaning procedures

New requirements for sanitation and disinfection have also been established for PPE when contaminated with blood, body fluids, biological contaminants such as floodwater or specific microorganisms (as may occur through providing patient care to ill individuals).

Sanitation is required to remove microorganisms to a safe level from textile items, while disinfection is applied to PPE with hard surfaces, such as helmet shells. Disinfection is more aggressive in better removing biological contamination because it is easier to kill bacteria and viruses on hard surfaces as compared to clothing items. Sanitation can either proceed or be part of advanced cleaning. The sanitizers and disinfectants used for firefighter PPE must comply with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registration requirements for antimicrobial products and processes.

Specialized cleaning addressing specific types of contaminants, such as asbestos, fentanyl (opioid drugs) or bed bugs. These procedures require additional considerations in removing these contaminants due to different concerns for subsequent exposure from gear. The annex in NFOA 1851 provides recommended procedures to address these unique forms of contamination. Fire service organizations must further verify if specialized cleaning is effective, and some specific recommendations are given in the annex of NFPA 1851 for how this verification may be accomplished.

PPE items such as helmets, gloves, and footwear must follow more complete cleaning procedures, such as manual cleaning in a utility sink, and suggested details are provided in NFPA 1851 2020 Edition’s annex material.

As for drying, the standard recommends simple air drying or the use of air-drying cabinets as an option. Machine drying is permitted only on a no-heat setting.

Inspecting the inspectors

NFPA 1851 2020 imposes strict rules on the qualifying organizations that need to conduct advanced inspections, cleaning and repair of PPE, which include manufacturers, Independent Service Providers (ISPs) and fire service organizations trained either by manufacturers or ISPs. Verified cleaners are a new category of ISPs that provide advanced inspection and advanced cleaning but conduct no repairs.

The effectiveness of advanced cleaning and sanitization for manufacturers, ISPs and verified organizations must be also checked according to the updated standard. Independent testing overseen by a certification organization must show that the advanced cleaning and sanitization procedures reduce the amounts of contaminants in turnout clothing (currently only applied to garments) and must be carried out one year after the effective date of the standard and every two years afterward.

While the effectiveness of manufacturers and ISPs’ cleaning is supposed to be checked, fire departments must further conduct hazard assessments depending on the type of fire ground operations: structural or proximity firefighting. This procedure indicates which type of gear should be worn during different fire events: structural or proximity gear.

Requirements for PPE inspections and repairing

Advanced inspection procedures now include complete liner checkups and are currently required to be done every year beginning the first year, instead of starting  after three years. As the specified hydrostatic testing is commonly performed in advanced inspections as a good assessment of moisture barrier quality, more qualitative (subjective) liner light tests and puddle tests have been removed from routine inspection procedures.

NFPA 1851, 2020 Edition also added new provisions addressing particulate blocking-hoods inspections. The methods recommended are used to identify damage either using a light inside a head form on which the hood is mounted or a smoke test that involves a modified hydrostatic tester with a smoke generator.

According to the 2020 Edition of NFPA 1851, training for the repair of PPE must be offered by manufacturers of the same element type or experienced ISPs that provide this service. The maximum 10-year service life of PPE requirement was not changed; however, the committee reiterated the lack of non-destructive field methods to assess continued PPE performance and increasing concerns for the accumulation of contamination in used turnout clothing.

The NFPA 1851 has undergone a significant series of changes, primarily focused on improved cleaning practices and contamination control. New updates provided in NFPA 1851 are expected in the future, further improving the safety of firefighters and the effectiveness of their PPE.