By: Hayden Hughes, Senior Sales Representative, Emergency Technical Decon

Bunker gear and turnout gear – these two interchangeable terms have maintained the same purpose since their creation. Each protects first responders while they conduct their jobs, coming in contact with extreme temperatures and toxic elements. Composed of a three-layer system, the gear includes an outer shell, moisture barrier, and thermal barrier. 

With the health and safety of firefighters most top of mind, departments continue to make significant investments in bunker gear. And like any investment, questions surrounding timelines and life cycles quickly follow. In this blog, we’ll look into the longevity of bunker gear and discuss some steps to increasing the life and its performance.

The NFPA 1851 10-Year Rule

When considering the lifespan of bunker gear, one of the most significant guidelines is the NFPA 1851 standard, which recommends retiring gear after ten years of service. This rule is based on extensive research and testing to ensure gear maintains its protective properties and performance over time. While individual manufacturers may provide specific recommendations for their gear, the NFPA 1851 standard offers a general guideline many fire departments follow. It’s important to note that gear can deteriorate over time due to exposure to heat, moisture, chemicals, and other hazards encountered during firefighting operations. Therefore, replacing gear at or before the ten-year mark helps ensure the highest level of protection for firefighters.

Factors Affecting Gear Retirement

There are several factors to take into account when deciding whether to retire bunker gear, as outlined by the NFPA 1851 standards. Deterioration is a significant consideration, as wear and tear can compromise the gear’s integrity. This includes visible signs of damage, such as holes, tears, or degraded reflective trim. Excessive soil buildup can also impact the gear’s ability to repel water and maintain thermal protection. As the gear wears down, layers begin to rub against each other and create tiny balls of fabric that decrease breathability and increase thermal insulation. Other factors include changes in the firefighter’s body size, compatibility with newer safety equipment, and advancements in gear technology. 

Use and repeated laundering slowly reduces the strength of turnout gear over time. These age related performance issues can often be repaired fairly easily but are also not always caught very quickly. Many times, gear is replaced based on visual changes in the appearance of the gear. This often is helpful for external wear and tear; however, this method is not as effective when it comes to more subtle issues within gear. Regular inspections and rigorous adherence to manufacturer’s recommendations and NFPA standards are crucial in assessing the condition of bunker gear and making informed decisions regarding retirement.

The Ongoing Debate on Turnout Gear Service Life

The service life of turnout gear remains a topic of ongoing debate within the firefighting community. While the NFPA 1851 standard recommends a ten-year retirement timeframe, some argue for shorter or longer service life spans. Those advocating for shorter service life argue that exposure to various hazards may significantly degrade the gear’s protective properties, putting firefighters in further danger while on-scene. On the other hand, proponents of longer service life believe that with proper care, maintenance, and regular inspections, turnout gear can remain effective beyond the ten-year mark. This debate underscores the importance of considering multiple factors, including gear condition, exposure levels, advancements in gear technology, and the unique needs of each fire department when determining gear retirement.

Evolving Expectations of Turnout Gear

Over time, firefighters’ expectations of turnout gear evolved to prioritize not only protection from flames and heat but also protection from cancer-causing agents and improved comfort. Firefighters now have a better understanding of the long-term health risks associated with exposure to toxic substances present in firefighting environments. As a result, they seek gear that minimizes absorption of these substances and provides enhanced breathability to reduce heat stress and increase overall comfort. 

Manufacturers have responded to these demands by developing gear with improved moisture barriers, enhanced breathability, and advanced materials that offer superior protection while reducing the risk of long-term health issues. These advancements have significantly contributed to the safety and well-being of firefighters on the front lines.

The Importance of Gear Inspection

Regular inspection of turnout gear is vital in ensuring its reliability and performance. Inspections help identify visible damage, wear, or degradation that may compromise the gear’s protective properties. These inspections should be performed by trained individuals within the fire department or a certified third-party service provider. Inspecting the gear after each use, as well as conducting more thorough annual inspections, ensures that any potential issues are addressed promptly. By adhering to the inspection protocols outlined in the NFPA 1851 standard, fire departments can maintain a high level of safety and extend the usable lifespan of their gear.

Cleaning and Maintaining Your Gear

Proper cleaning and maintenance of turnout gear are essential for firefighter safety and gear longevity. Contaminated gear can pose health risks, as it may retain harmful substances encountered during firefighting operations. Cleaning procedures should align with the manufacturer’s recommendations and the NFPA 1851 standard. Advanced cleaning techniques, such as CO2 cleaning, can effectively remove contaminants while minimizing the risk of further damage to the gear. Regular maintenance, including inspections, repairs, and replacement of damaged components, should be conducted to ensure gear remains in optimal condition. Firefighters should also follow guidelines for proper storage and handling to prevent unnecessary wear and tear. By prioritizing thorough cleaning and maintenance practices, fire departments can enhance the performance and longevity of their turnout gear, while minimizing health risks associated with contaminated gear.

Understanding the lifespan of bunker gear and implementing proper maintenance practices are crucial for firefighter safety. Adhering to the NFPA 1851 standard, considering various factors affecting gear retirement, and conducting regular inspections and cleaning procedures can significantly extend the lifespan of turnout gear. By prioritizing the safety and well-being of firefighters, fire departments can ensure that their gear remains effective and protective throughout its service life. Remember, a well-maintained and properly retired bunker gear is essential in supporting the brave men and women who risk their lives to protect others. 

For more information on how to start your department with our liquid CO2 cleaning solutions, reach out to our team today.

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