One of the most discussed issues surrounding fireman equipment is when to swap firefighter turnout gear for a brand new set. As a firefighter’s protective gear is the only thing that separates him/her from fire, this is an understandably heated debate. After repeatedly being exposed to extreme thermal and chemical conditions, damage to fire rescue gear is inevitable. This damage, in addition to standard wear and tear, will decrease the level of protection that firefighters need provided to them in the line of duty. Hence, it is imperative to replace fire fighter gear as often as needed or required.
NFPA Firefighter Apparel Requirements
In NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, structural ensemble pieces must be replaced 10 years after the manufacture date. Outer shells must be retired 5 years after manufacture date. While this provides general guidelines on the maximum amount of time that fire and rescue gear absolutely must be retired, many garments wear out even sooner than that. Others argue that since the NFPA standards on clothing are revised every 5 years, all turnout gear and outer shells should be replaced every 5 years. However, the industry generally agrees that a protective gear set should be replaced every 3 to 5 years.
Variables That Affect the Lifespan of Fire Fighter Gear
There are many factors that can increase or decrease the longevity of firegear. Contributing influences include maintenance, storage, and exposure. Depending on these variables, a piece of firefighter gear could last anywhere from a few hours to the full 10 year NFPA maximum.
Routine care and maintenance of firegear is vital in order to maximize the lifespan and protection that each piece provides. Turnout gear that is properly maintained will last significantly longer than if it is ignored. Care includes periodic laundering to clean the material for the health of the firefighter. Regular cleaning, however, is not encouraged as it causes the loss of fabric fibers as it is tumbles in the washer and dryer. This shortens its lifespan by 10% to 20%.
Storing Fire Service Equipment
Proper storage of turnout gear is extremely important in order to maintain its protective qualities. The best storage space is well ventilated, away from direct light, including sunlight, pollutants, and any surroundings that could potentially damage the clothing. Firefighters are highly discouraged from storing gear in their living quarters or at home.
Exposure to Harmful Elements
Every rescue mission is different – some circumstances are more destructive than others. For example, the gear of a firefighter who is rescuing a family from a burning building will face far more damage than that of a firefighter who is putting out a fire on the street. Hence, although two firemen wear turnout gear manufactured in the same year, one could last much longer than the other, depending on the circumstances of exposure. Although some gear can be repaired with trim replacements, sewn tears, and patched up moisture barriers, it will eventually reach a point where it no longer provides the same protection as it did when it was first purchased from a fire fighting equipment supplier.
The only way to know how your firegear is aging is through close inspection. Each individual firefighter should habitually and routinely conduct an inspection of garments after each use. Look for signs of damage, such as soiling, contamination, tears, and other physical damage. This will help you identify how soon it will be before you need to visit your firefighter store for new gear.
In addition, an advanced inspection should be conducted every 12 months. This can be done individually or as a department. Advanced inspection areas include a closer look at moisture barriers, fit, seam integrity, material integrity, loss or shifting of thermal liner material, and closure system functionality.