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NFPA Impact: November 2016

In my travels, certain NFPA standards come up more often than others in conversations. Recently there has been interest in NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting.

November 2, 2016 
By Shayne Mintz

What seems to be of the utmost interest is the portion of NFPA 1851 regarding an appropriate maintenance program for firefighting protective ensembles, including the process of inspecting, cleaning and decontaminating all components of a firefighter’s PPE and the repair, storage and retirement of the garments. Also of interest is the role and verification of independent service providers that have emerged over the past decade and a half.

Gone are the days of the veteran firefighter whose bunker gear and helmet were so dirty that it was difficult to tell the colour of the reflective striping. No longer is dirty turnout gear a badge of honour.

Previous generations of firefighters generally overlooked or weren’t aware of the extreme health hazards posed by contaminants captured in firefighter garments, and the contact with particles that firefighters may experience from the exposure to their gear. The modern philosophy is that the fire scene itself is crammed with contaminants. However, the real and equal hazard is when those contaminants are embedded in the gear and taken back to the fire station where they persist.

Fortunately, there is now more focus on both the short- and long-term health effects of soiled bunker gear. Research has confirmed that the carcinogenic particles found in smoke and other contaminated atmospheres can be ingested, inhaled and then combined with lung and body tissue, creating health and safety concerns for firefighters.


Now there is consensus that dirty or poorly maintained protective clothing is a clear hazard, and thorough cleaning and hygiene practices and protocols are important.

A webinar hosted by the NFPA, entitled How Clean is Clean: The validation of Firefighter PPE Cleaning (watch the archived version on YouTube), raised a serious question; how effective are these practices?

It is evident that current cleaning methods do some good, but in reality these activities are just best practices with no basis in science. This leaves one to wonder about the effectiveness of fire-ground decontamination and routine in-station inspection. How effective is advanced cleaning, and how often does gear need this depth of cleaning? Also, what is being done to protect firefighters from exposure to blood-born pathogens, serious cases of infectious superbugs or emerging diseases, such as Ebola?

In response to these questions, the NFPA is planning for changes that may be needed for the next version of NFPA 1851. The next revision of the standard will likely include updated cleaning procedures to address persistent contamination, investigate new and innovative cleaning technologies and practices, and finally, develop or provide a means for verifying the effectiveness of cleaning protocols.

The independent research affiliate of the NFPA, the Fire Protection Research Foundation, along with research partners Intertek, International Personal Protection Inc., and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, have been tasked with exploring the answers to some fundamental questions that will be used to inform the NFPA technical committees in their deliberations for the next version of the standard.

Questions from the foundation include: Can better cleaning procedures be provided? Does cleaning adequately remove both chemical and biological contaminates? When and how do departments know their gear is clean? How can research findings best be transitioned to the apparatus floor?

The expected outcome of the research is that specific techniques will be developed for the application of NFPA 1851 to allow fire departments, independent service providers, gear manufacturers, equipment providers and cleaning-agent suppliers to validate the removal of chemical and biological soils and compounds, and validate the removal of harmful bacteria and other microorganisms. With that, the research findings will be used to develop and establish best industry practices.

For more information on this project, visit NFPA’s web page at

Shayne Mintz has more than 35 years of experience in the fire service, having completed his career as chief of the Burlington Fire Department in Ontario. Contact Shayne at, and follow him on Twitter at @ShayneMintz

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