Firefighting is a dangerous profession that requires specialized equipment. No equipment is more important for firefighters than their personal protective equipment, or PPE, that protects them from dangerous levels of heat and smoke. Firefighting PPE also acts as the primary barrier from injury as well as short-term or long-term health risks. Firefighters' PPE has two critical purposes: protecting their own lives and giving them a chance to save the lives of others. Firefighters must properly maintain their PPE in order for the equipment to be effective.

The correct way to clean PPE is determined by the type and amount of contamination. Some contaminants will reduce the fire resistance of the PPE. In some cases, the PPE has to be taken out of service for cleaning, decontamination or repair. Contaminant-related risk and cancer are leading concerns for firefighter health. The contaminants can be inhaled, ingested or absorbed, causing serious and sometimes fatal illness. Contaminates may include toxic chemicals, hydrocarbons, biological pathogens and other hazardous substances.

Firefighters are responsible for cleaning their assigned PPE. This task should be performed in accordance with the department's standard operating procedures, the manufacturer's instructions and NFPA 1851. NFPA 1851 2020 edition should be consulted for a more detailed update on cleaning PPE.

A 2019 article from the U.S. Fire Administration references a study of firefighter's field decontamination process. The study collected 482 firefighter surveys from four South Florida fire departments. Firefighter attitudes were overwhelmingly favorable towards cleaning their PPE. However, actual decontamination and cleaning did not follow the same level. For firefighters, showering is as important as cleaning PPE. The study showed that after a fire, 64% of firefighters showered and 10% never or rarely showered. 

Fire departments are also working on a "clean cab" concept. The concept directs firefighters to decontaminate while on the scene. This includes cleaning their PPE and wiping down surfaces in the cab where contaminates may have settled. All PPE and other gear can then be stored outside of the cab. This helps to prevent cross contamination to the apparatus and firehouse.

Firefighters have always been proud of their firehouse. The floors are always clean, trucks are washed and maintained. Equipment on the truck is checked and double checked. Are they following the same routine for their PPE? Are they routinely cleaning and inspecting personal gear? Are they keeping themselves clean and healthy? A goal of every department should be to have two sets of PPE for every firefighter. A full set of PPE can cost $3,000 to $5,000 per firefighter. This is the department's investment in personal safety, and firefighters should invest the time to clean and maintain their PPE.

The South Carolina Municipal Insurance Trust Fire Service Grant is available to assist fire departments in the purchase of personal protective equipment. Members may apply for reimbursement of up to 50%of the cost of the equipment purchased, not to exceed a maximum benefit of $2,000 per member per year. The funds are available on a first-come, first-served basis until depleted.

For any questions, please contact Lisa Dunkley at 803.933.1237 or