Clean gear, clear dangers with Gear Wash

April 9, 2024

Mitigating firefighters’ contaminant exposure through proper maintenance, by Misty Johnson, Business Development Manager at Gear Wash

A firefighter’s career is spent keeping others safe and, in doing so, they often put their own lives at risk because they never quite know what they’re going to face in any given situation.

They can be exposed to numerous hazardous contaminants over the course of fighting a fire that can damage their lungs, cause heart problems and other long-term conditions and side effects.

It’s crucial to determine how and what they’re being exposed to, so they can follow the right protocols to mitigate their risks.

There are several ways to protect first responders from contaminant exposure, including:

  • Improved training
  • State-of-the-art gear
  • Medical monitoring
  • Strict decontamination

Implementing these protocols helps keep these heroes safe.

Let’s examine the different ways they can be exposed and how to keep their equipment clean to prevent secondary exposure.

How firefighters are exposed

There are four common ways that firefighters are exposed to hazardous substances while fighting a fire:

  1. Though Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is crucial to protect firefighters from flames and heat, it may not be ideal for keeping them safe from airborne contaminants. In fact, contaminants can accumulate in the gear itself and prolong exposure beyond the actual fire itself. That’s why PPE should be cleaned and decontaminated regularly.
  2. As fires combust, they can release toxic substances into the air, no matter whether the call is to a residential property, commercial property or a wildfire. This toxic cocktail of gases, particulate matter, and harmful chemicals can cause long-term and acute health problems if inhaled.
  3. The way buildings are built today includes significant amounts of synthetic materials like plastics, foams and treated wood. Though it makes buildings easier to construct, these materials contain toxic chemicals that are released as harmful fumes when they burn. If firefighters’ PPE isn’t properly designed, it can actually damage their skin, especially if they come into contact with the fumes for long periods of time.
  4. The potential threat to firefighters doesn’t end after the flames are extinguished. When firefighters search for hidden fires and hotspots, toxic debris can be kicked up into the air, making it an inhalation and dermal danger once again. Even the process of cleaning and decontaminating equipment could pose risks if not handled properly.

Keeping it clean

Without proper maintenance, PPE can quickly lose its effectiveness.

Making sure fire departments keep up with maintaining their first responder gear is essential to lowering their chances of being exposed—or exposing others—to toxic chemicals.

Proper maintenance also extends the usable life of turnout gear.

Older firefighters may prefer to appear as sooty warriors, but new generations of firefighters understand how dangerous that image really is.

Accumulating toxic substances in gear can severely affect not only their health but can reduce the PPE’s overall effectiveness.

Damage can affect its ability to reflect water or radiant heat; weaken it and make it more prone to tears and punctures; reduce the visibility of its reflective trim; and may even cause it to ignite.

The guidelines of NFPA 1851 mean gear inspections should be done annually and cleaned once every six months or twice a year.

It’s incumbent on fire departments to make sure their staff understand how to care for their gear properly.

Many methods are used to clean gear without doing damage to it.

Ultrasonic cleaning also achieves this important goal and provides more thorough removal of contaminants in crevices and structural helmets and footwear.

Consider an outside vendor to keep gear clean

To save firefighters’ valuable time, it may make sense to engage with a verified Independent Service Provider (ISP).

They often have in-depth knowledge of cleaning technologies and understand which methods will work best for specific equipment.

They are often more thorough, effective and fully compliant with the crucial standards that keep firefighters safe.

Additionally, they are likely more familiar with manufacturing-specific requirements, which means it will be cleaned in ways that will retain its protective qualities and keep it in service longer.

A verified ISP will have specialized cleaning equipment, agents and techniques that are often unavailable to firefighters.

Finally, they may be able to provide rental turnout gear while existing PPE is being cleaned and sanitized.

Firefighters’ jobs are already dangerous enough.

Understanding the threat contaminants pose and how to keep them from causing lingering health problems will mean ongoing research into how to keep these heroes safe.

About the Author

Misty Johnson started as an Operations Supervisor for Gear Wash Denver in 2017 and is now the Business Development Manager for all Gear Wash’s locations on the West Coast, showing dedication and excellence along the way.

Responsible for nurturing client relationships and driving growth initiatives across Denver and Las Vegas, Misty’s journey underscores her commitment to the company’s mission.

Leveraging her industry expertise and client-centric approach, she plays a pivotal role in Gear Wash’s continued success, ensuring the delivery of top-notch safety and hygiene solutions.

Learn more by visiting Gear Wash’s website here.

This article was originally published in the April 2024 issue of Fire & Safety Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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