Ballyclare’s Simon Burnett-Boothroyd takes a close look at the issues surrounding the cleaning and maintenance of firefighting garments.
There have been a number of recent UK press articles covering the issue of firefighters coming into contact with harmful chemicals during the course of their work, especially carcinogenic materials. Fires often involve wood and metal materials just as they have always done, but today there are fresh hazards caused by the combustion of the many different types of plastics and electronic devices found in modern buildings.
This is posing new types of risks to modern firefighters, as the dangerous chemicals that can be released will inevitably contaminate their PPE. These contaminants can sometimes be absorbed through the firefighter’s skin, as the increase in temperature inside the PPE can increase the permeability of the skin. There is not yet any definitive proof of links between illnesses such as cancer, and exposure to complex molecules such as PAH / PM, or irritant gases like Hydrogen Chloride. Studies into this area are currently being undertaken, but the changing nature of the risks which firefighters face cannot be taken lightly.
The recent coverage of this contamination issue has obviously thrown the spotlight onto the nature of the PPE being used by firefighters. Along with outstanding thermal protection, creating an effective barrier to these contaminants is obviously a crucial requirement of any item of PPE, and this requires carefully tested and proven garment design and manufacture. There is, however, another area which is equally important in protecting firefighters, and that is the cleaning and maintenance of the PPE they wear. Research has shown that high levels of potentially harmful chemicals can remain on firefighters' protective gear after it has been exposed to smoke, and this makes the proper care of firefighter kit an absolutely essential requirement if we are to limit the wearer’s exposure to these dangerous contaminants.
It’s important to also consider the effect which proper cleaning has on the operational life of the PPE. Properly maintained garments will have an extended life expectancy, and in terms of their purchase cost they will add value for the fire and rescue organisation by essentially providing them with ‘more for less’.
Doubts have recently been raised in the industry about the level of attention which is paid to the cleaning of PPE in some quarters, and this is certainly an area which demands very careful attention from the fire and rescue organisations which provide PPE to their people. Given the serious nature of the subject, it is perhaps surprising that there is currently no relevant UK standard in place for this. Such a standard exists in the USA - NSPA 1851 governs the selection, care and maintenance of PPE - and we at Ballyclare use this as our benchmark. The British Standards organisation is addressing this issue by preparing a UK standard cleaning code of practice – the first of its type in Europe – and the UK is currently leading the way in this respect.
Fortunately, there are some PPE manufacturers such as Ballyclare who provide comprehensive laundry and maintenance services which work to the highest standards. We take this issue extremely seriously, and in addition to our own laundry facilities we also work with laundry partner companies. Like ourselves, our partners have invested in their laundry service capabilities, and we use our own extensive experience and knowledge to provide them with the training that is essential in providing a first-class service. We use the current American standards as our benchmark, and the result is a laundry and maintenance service which our customers know they can really rely on.
So what sort of features should a fire and rescue organisation look for in a laundry service provider such as ourselves? Perhaps the first port of call would be to check if, like ourselves, they are audited in line with the requirements of NFPA 185. This will provide a good starting point and ensure a reliable level of quality. While there are many possible answers to that question, key feature should include a proven and audited system of work where the cleaning and maintenance operations follow a set sequence. Incoming PPE should be carefully segregated to separate garments with only loose surface dirt from those which are heavily soiled, and which may be contaminated with carcinogenic materials or blood-borne pathogens. Those people handling the garments must be provided with proper protection, and that segregation must be maintained throughout the cleaning process up to the point where the garments are clean once again.
Washing and drying must be carried out under carefully controlled circumstances, particularly the latter where care must be taken not to stress the garments by subjecting them to an unnecessarily aggressive process. All garments should also be subject to an intensive inspection and checking operation at various points of the process, to identify any faults or necessary repairs which were not initially obvious.
The laundry provider must also be able to demonstrate a robust and reliable tracking system which can identify each individual garment as it goes through the process. This allows them to build a personal ‘life history’ of each garment and this can be a very valuable aid to the customer when planning their PPE purchasing and replacement schedules. Of course, it goes without saying that any garments which benefit from regular and reliable cleaning and maintenance are very likely to offer a much longer operational life, and the process of adding value by extending the working life of the PPE will be a key objective for any laundry service provider worth considering.
The effectiveness of any cleaning process is heavily influenced by the way in which a garment has been designed and manufactured, so it really pays dividends to choose your PPE wisely in the first place. This is something which we at Ballyclare pay considerable attention to in the creation of our own firefighter PPE, such as our increasingly popular Xenon range.
The use of traditional hook-and-loop fastenings is a case in point. While these certainly have an important role to play in PPE design, we were careful to minimise their use in the design of our Xenon jackets and trousers, as they can create hiding places which make contaminant particles harder to remove. A similar logic lies behind our use of reflective tape on Xenon garments.
It’s not uncommon for garments on the market to use 2-3mm thick reflective tape which is sewn onto them. Although this tape is relatively stiff and unforgiving, repeated bending and compression by the wearer can lead to the creation of small unwanted gaps between the tape and the outer layer of the garment. Once again, these crevices offer potentially harmful contaminant particles a place to become trapped. Our use of thermally-applied reflective strips on the Xenon garments greatly reduces this danger, as these strips are less than 1 mm thick and so are far more flexible and much less likely to harbour contaminants.
This sort of intelligent design also pays other dividends when garments need to be repaired. Unpicking the stitching from a length of damaged reflective tape takes times and adds to the cost of any repair, whereas the thermally applied tape can be removed and replaced much more rapidly. This allows a company such as Ballyclare to offer a turn-round period on laundry services which can be as little as one week, and this can bring considerable benefits to a customer who needs to keep their PPE up to scratch at all times.
In times gone by, there was a common mindset amongst firefighters that heavily soiled PPE represented some sort of ‘badge of honour’ which showed that the wearer had been doing their job properly. Fortunately, this is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and fire and rescue organisations through the country have done a marvellous job in dispelling this myth and stressing to their personnel that clean kit is essential. In response, it’s only fair that PPE manufacturers and laundry providers support their efforts by providing the very best service they can, backed up by their skills, experience and specialist knowledge, as the emphasis placed on the need for clean kit can only be set to increase in the future.
This article was origianlly published in FIRE Magazine.