Cancer is a hidden killer amongst the force. In fact, firefighters have a 68% higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer than the general population. Why? It’s simple: exposure to cancer-causing particles is high. But, this hidden killer can be stopped in its tracks with careful PPE inspection and maintenance.
No matter what task you’re undertaking, your kit is your last line of defence. It protects you from all manner of hazards, whether that be freezing cold temperatures, the most extreme heat, toxic chemicals or the invisible hazard of particulates.
The preservation of PPE is critical and in this feature we will look at how to maintain and inspect your kit.
While previous generations would have worn scorch marks and dirt as a badge of honour, today’s firefighters know different. A clean kit is a safe kit.
It’s essential that brigades utilise specialist cleaning services. This ensures that kits are correctly washed and cared for after every single use. However, the buck doesn’t stop here.
Regular inspections of fire kits are just as important as laundering. A fire suit is only as good as its weakest seam, and therefore it needs to be checked that it is fit for purpose every time before it is used. Here are six steps that will help preserve the life of kit:
Back to basics
It sounds simple, but check the surface of the fabric first and foremost. You should be looking for holes, rips, tears and scuffs – even just the smallest rip or graze can impact a kit’s protection.
This should be conducted on two occasions – both prior to using the kit and after each shift. When inspecting the kit before use, you need to ensure there isn’t any damage from previous wear. While after each shift, you are checking for any new and potentially compromising damage that may have occurred during rescues.
These frequent checks will provide an extra line of defence from damage risk, and ensure that nobody leaves the station without the required protection levels.
Now you see me
Visibility is a crucial safety feature of fire kit. Whether called out to a rescue in dark and hazardous conditions, battling through thick plumes of smoke, or attending a road incident amidst live traffic, being easily seen is vital to ensuring safety on the job. A kit with good visibility enhances not only your own safety but also that of your team.
A torch test will check the reflective surfaces of a fire suit. Shine a torch over reflective surfaces to make sure they remain reflective. If there is even the smallest compromise, ensure you use alternative kit and send the damaged item for repair.
This doesn’t just apply to your turnout kit but also other non-fire kits. Like a rescue-wear set.
Wet, wet, wet
A bit of damp never hurt anyone, but maintaining water repellency is crucial. Not only does it allow for more effective and comfortable working, it ensures that harmful chemicals and particulates are not able to infiltrate through the material.
And it’s incredibly easy to check if a suit is still water tight – simply spray it with water. If the water pools in droplets on the surface, the durable water repellent (DWR) layer is working effectively. But if it soaks into the fabric, the DWR has failed and the garment needs re-treating.
It’s far from rocket science, yet this simple check ensures a kit will provide suitable protection from the elements.
Even the smallest amount of damage to a suit can compromise its ability to protect. And this includes fastenings, seals, zips and poppers.
These seals provide an important line of defence for firefighters – they ensure full body protection in extreme heat and are designed to ensure corrosive liquids, carcinogenic particles and other harmful substances can’t infiltrate the kit.
Safety seals also ensure the integrity of PPE is maintained. Without these, flapping collars, cuffs or pockets can cause a hazard for firefighters.
It’s also important that helmets, boots and other equipment fasten correctly. The last thing a firefighter needs is their helmet coming loose during a rescue!
UV exposure can gradually wear fabric. This won’t be immediately visible, but tired fabric whilst on a job will soon become apparent. Make sure to stress test the fabric and ensure it can withstand blunt pressure.
Do this by pushing a blunt object against the fabric. The object shouldn’t go through, but if it does, it’s a good indicator of UV damage. This should be repeated once the kit is being worn – firefighters should kneel to ensure flex and functionality of the fabric, in addition to pushing against the elbows.
Check your Velcro
It sounds trivial, but checking that your Velcro adheres properly is of the utmost importance. If you have been in a grassy environment, the Velcro can easily become matted and fail to close properly. This compromises protection against particulates.
It is also paramount that zips and other fasteners are checked to ensure they are closing properly.
No matter how well you maintain your kit, there will always come a time when it will need replacing. So it’s important to know when this time comes. Replacing kit at the right time keeps your team safe and comfortable, no matter what the call-out is for.
To understand this, you need to be familiar with kit expiration and replacement practices.
When does your turnout kit expire?
To put it simply, there’s no hard and fast rule. It’s likely that different manufacturers will specify the lifespan of individual garments, which will give you a good indicator of expiration timings.
The British Standard for the inspection, testing, cleaning, decontamination, drying, repairs, replacement and retirement/disposal of firefighting PPE recommends that kit should be replaced at least every 10 years.
But there are important reasons for not waiting that long.
Repair or replace?
Within BS8617 is provision for keeping excellent records and traceability for all PPE items. This provides the opportunity to keep a close eye on maintenance spending – monitoring how much money is spent on each item.
If the amount invested in repairs is coming close to the cost of replacement, it’s time to buy new. If a new jacket costs £200 for example, and you have already invested £150 in repairs, there’s a good chance it will be more cost effective to replace the jacket the next time it is damaged, instead of paying for another repair.
Should you replace your firefighting kit sooner?
While private fire and rescue services might not face too many call-outs, it’s a different story for state-operated fire and rescue services (FRSs) in England. Over the last year, the FRS responded to 557,299 incidents*. Of these incidents, 153,957 (28%) were fires and 31% were non-fire-related incidents such as road traffic collisions.
With so much opportunity for wear and tear, it’s inevitable that firefighting kit will reach the point of needing to be replaced before reaching the 10-year minimum.
Professional care and maintenance companies will inspect turnout kit every time it goes for cleaning. They should provide advice about when kit should be repaired or replaced.
Garments don’t just need to be retired if they are over 10 years old but also if they have been contaminated by chemical, biological, radioactive or nuclear agents. Good maintenance protocols go hand in hand with constant kit inspections – so flag issues as they arise.
For more information, go to www.flame-pro.com
* Data from https://www.fs.fed.us/eng/pubs/htmlpubs/htm99512841/page11.htm
* Information from https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/908635/fire-and-rescue-incident-mar20-hosb2220.pdf