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Are You Cleaning Your Firefighter PPE Effectively?

The dangers of firefighting require many specialized pieces of equipment, but perhaps the most important items are the personal protective equipment that protect firefighters from extreme heat and smoke. These items, known as PPE, can include everything from heat-resistant coats, pants and other clothes that they wear, known as turnout gear, to the helmets and breathing apparatuses that provide them with clean air. 

PPE helps protect firefighters from immediate injury as they protect others, but it also helps protect them from long-term health risks like inhaling carcinogens. For PPE to work effectively, however, firefighters need to be able to keep it clean.

Contamination risks
Equipment contamination can come in many forms

  • toxic chemicals;
  • hydrocarbons; or 
  • biological pathogens; among others. 
Once contaminants are present, those who come into contact with the equipment can unknowingly inhale, ingest or absorb the contaminants, leading to serious and sometimes fatal illness.

Cleaning PPE
The correct way to clean PPE can depend on the type and amount of contamination, and sometimes PPE needs to be taken out of service entirely for cleaning, decontamination or repair. 

One key issue for turnout gear is the importance of never washing it in the same washing machine that firefighters use for their home laundry, which can lead to contaminants showing up on their off-duty clothes or the clothes of their families. This makes a washing machine at the fire station a critical purchase. Maintaining two full sets of PPE for each firefighter can also help departments ensure that their employees always have access to uncontaminated equipment. 

Firefighters need to clean their PPE in accordance with  their departments’ operating procedures, the manufacturer’s instructions and NFPA 1851, a standard published by the National Fire Protection Association, most recently in 2020. 

Beyond the cleaning that always takes place at the fire station, many stations now pursue a “clean cab” concept, in which firefighters decontaminate equipment while still on a scene. They clean PPE and wipe down the surfaces in the firetruck’s cab where contaminants may have settled, then store all PPE and other gear outside the cab. 

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene surveyed hundreds of firefighters in South Florida. It found that while firefighters had overwhelmingly favorable attitudes about PPE cleaning, their rates of actually cleaning the equipment were lower. While 64% of the respondents reported showering after each fire, 10% never or rarely showered after a fire. 

Assistance for equipment
The Federal Emergency Management Agency maintains an Assistance to Firefighter Grants program to help departments obtain the equipment, protective gear, training and other resources they need, with washing machines as a priority for the grants. So far the program has made 2,200 awards totaling $710 million.
The SC Municipal Insurance Trust offers its members a SCMIT Fire Service Grant to help departments purchase personal protective equipment. Members can apply for reimbursement of as much as 50% of the cost of purchased equipment, 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 more information, contact Jennifer Gray at 803.933.1237 or