RIPON, Wis. — Take a minute and think about your favorite movie or media depiction of firefighters. Now, zero in on their gear … it looks immaculate, doesn’t it? Perfectly laundered and fresh?

Wait, that’s not the picture you have?

Chances are the image you saw was of “seasoned” gear, soot-stained coats and pants—a clear representation of the firefighter’s brave battles in dangerous blazes. That’s been the media depiction for seemingly forever.

Veteran firefighters themselves will also speak with a bit of pride about the days of that battle-worn gear as a testament to their experience as badge of honor.

Times change, however, and we now know all too well that that seasoned gear harbors dangerous carcinogens. We are acutely aware that the danger doesn’t end when the fire is extinguished; rather, it lives on through those harmful substances attached to the gear.

Laundry equipment is as much a part of keeping firefighters safe as helmets and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).

NOT SO SIMPLE

It should be a simple fix, right? Get a washer-extractor and tumble dryer for the firehouse and the department is set. Well, as readers of this publication know, there’s always far more to laundering.

Think about the basic challenges a professional football team faces in keeping uniforms looking good. Uniforms are made up of a variety of technical fibers. The playing surfaces present several stain challenges—different turfs, paints and types of dirt.

Now imagine the uniform of a firefighter. Those technical fibers designed into personal protective equipment (PPE) are not just for show; they are there to protect them from searing heat, keep them visible in the disorienting smoke-filled environments.

Great care must be taken in laundering this important bunker gear to get it clean without damaging the life-protecting qualities of the fibers.

GUIDELINES FOR CLEANING

Departments planning for laundering PPE will first want to become familiar with NFPA 1851, which sets forth the guidelines for gear cleaning.

Guidelines continue to be updated. For instance, NFPA 1851 went from a recommendation of cleaning once a year to cleaning gear whenever it is soiled or contaminated. Again, this drives home the need for departments to develop in-house laundries.

With the fluid nature of NFPA 1851, departments should look for washer-extractors that are 30-pound capacity or larger, allow significant flexibility in controls to tailor wash action and, most importantly, G-force extraction. Pre-programmed cycles help take user error out of the equation by keeping cycles in compliance with NFPA 1851.

For instance, current standards call for water temperature not to exceed 105 F and a maximum extract of 100 G-force. Washer-extractors that offer a spray rinse also can be effective in removing soil versus bath rinse washers.

Just as washing PPE requires a specialized approach, drying does as well. While tumble dryers may be used for station wear, truck towels and other station items, they are less popular for bunker gear.

Departments seeking to return gear to service fast will opt for gear drying cabinets, which send heated air in and around gear that dries fabric on both sides of the moisture barrier, versus a fan type dryer that does not dry both sides of the gear, due to the moisture barrier.

Temperature is extremely important, so follow the same NFPA requirement of 105 F or the recommendations of your PPE supplier. These pieces of equipment can help dry other equipment, such as boots, gloves and hoses.

Departments that issue two sets of gear to staff may decide to air dry PPE in truck bays or elsewhere in the station.

In addition to flexibility, fire departments will want to key in on two other important elements when it comes to equipment: simplicity and industrial quality.

Firefighters are busy and laundry may not always be a top priority. Therefore, you want equipment controls that are as intuitive as possible. Controls that are specific and use real-word descriptions—outer shells or inner liners—on the control selection, effectively take user error out of the equation.

Industrial quality ensures that the investment made now will deliver years of service. Remember, all that flexibility of controls and cycles to adapt to any future changes to NFPA 1851 won’t mean much if the machine is out of commission in five years.

Robust, time-tested industrial equipment is mandatory for the punishing demands of a firehouse.

TECHNOLOGY

Under NFPA 1851, documentation has become as important as the cleaning process itself. Again, this is where streamlining data collection matters. If your department is utilizing paper and a clipboard hanging next to the machines, you’re doing it wrong.

Leveraging a digital tool can make data collection as simple as scanning the PPE barcode and tapping a couple of buttons. Cloud-based systems simplify collection further for departments with multiple houses, enabling staff at headquarters to review data and compliance.

DON’T FORGET THE TRAINING

A firefighter can have all the high-tech tools and gear at their fingertips, but we all know that without the proper training, they can be a dangerous liability on the job.

The same can be said in the laundry. Equipment and systems are inert without staff training on processes. Chiefs and safety officers will want to form a partnership with a company that can deliver a full solution—equipment, systems and training.

Having at least one member of the department go through certification through an Independent Service Provider is the minimum. That creates a go-to resource to drive compliance throughout the department. However, having online training accessible to other members of the department who want it is always advisable.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Rarely do numbers tell the full story. But in the case of the incidence rates of cancer among firefighters, the numbers illustrate an all-too-disturbing story … one the industry cannot ignore. For years, departments have made safety a priority by equipping firefighters with the best in PPE, SCBAs and other equipment.

Today, that effort extends to the laundry. High-quality industrial equipment streamlined recordkeeping systems and well-defined processes with the requisite staff training are now as required as the PPE itself.

Department leaders, however, do not need to become laundry experts to meet NFPA 1851 guidelines. This is where partnering with a full-service distributor takes that pressure off their plate.

Working with a leader committed to not just providing solutions to departments, but also taking an active role in developing processes and knowledge through membership in industry associations makes a difference.

Just like fighting a fire, with the right tools and mutual aid support, departments can take the next step in firefighter safety.

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Fire Department Updates Station Equipment, March 9, 2021

Laundry Technology Saves Lives, Oct. 17, 2019