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Firefighter jackets Between fighting fires and responding to other emergencies, fire fighter personal protective equipment (PPE) is exposed to a wide range of toxic chemicals, biological pathogens, and other hazardous substances. It’s well recognized that these contaminant exposures can pose significant dangers to fire fighters’ immediate and long-term health, with increased risk to cancer topping the list. However, knowing if current or new cleaning procedures adequately remove such contaminants from PPE has yet to be fully determined.

While general cleaning procedures have been established in NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, more science is needed to support, clarify and enhance them. Over the next three years, a four-phase PPE research project will scientifically identify and establish procedures for ensuring optimum contaminant removal from fire fighter PPE.

Project Phases and Tasks

This overall research effort involves four key phases of activity:

  1. Identification of Contaminants: Confirm identification and the ability to characterize persistent chemical and biological contaminants in fire fighter PPE through target substances and micro-organisms, in addition to laboratory techniques that recreate fireground exposures.
  2. Establishment of Soil and Chemical Contamination/Decontamination Procedures: Develop and validate specific procedures that determine the effectiveness of laundering and other cleaning methods to remove specific soils and chemical contaminants.
  3. Establishment of Biological Contamination/Disinfection or Sanitization Procedures: Develop and validate specific procedures that determine the effectiveness of laundering or disinfection/sanitization processes that remove/deactivate biologically-based contaminants.
  4. Creation of Overall Fire Service Guidance: Prepare proposed cleaning assessment criteria together with clear and definitive information for the fire service industry (fire fighters, fire departments, clothing manufacturers, material suppliers, cleaning/care organizations, and cleaning agent or equipment manufacturers) on appropriate approaches for properly cleaning fire fighter protective clothing and equipment.
A separate, initial phase 1 research study is already underway to address preliminary elements of this issue, which has focused on gathering information to identify persistent chemical contaminants in fire fighter PPE and how these contaminants can best be characterized. This preliminary phase 1 effort is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2015 with the work being conducted by Intertek, and has been funded by NFPA and a consortia of the following industry sponsors:  Fire-Dex; Globe Manufacturing; LionFirst Responder Products; L.N. Curtis & Sons; PBI Performance Products; and TenCate Protective Fabrics. 

This phase 1 effort has been crucial in laying the groundwork and obtaining the funding for the new three-year research effort to supplement phase 1 and also address additional phases 2, 3, and 4. The Fire Protection Research Foundation has been awarded nearly $900,000 in Assistance to Firefighter Grant (AFG) funding, and will conducting this work in coordination with multiple partners, including the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which hosts one of the leading research facilities in the country. Other project partners include Intertek Testing Services, the current Foundation contractor for phase-one, and International Personnel Protection, Inc. The project team will further work with current providers of fire fighter clothing cleaning services and utilize a panel of fire service representatives for technical advice.

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Related project

A related research project addressing a “Campaign for Fire Service Contamination Control” (PDF) is now underway and due to be completed in late 2017, and has an overall goal to develop and facilitate the outreach of an educational campaign to control the spread of harmful fire ground contaminants, ultimately in support of improved fire fighter long-term health.

Firefighter education and training resources
  • “How Clean is Clean?” webinar - An interim webinar report on the on-going research study on PPE cleaning validation
  • Cincinnati Fire Department - A short safety alert related to cancer in the Fire Service.
  • Boston Fire Department
    • A video discussing techniques used by the Boston Fire Department to reduce the possibility of being diagnosed with cancer. 
    • A video that details the extent of cancer diagnosis and death in the Boston Fire Department.
  • Palm Beach County Fire Rescue - A message from the Palm Beach County Firefighters regarding cancer-causing hazards.
  • Fairfax County Firefighters (Virginia) - Stories from Fairfax County, VA firefighters on their experience with Firefighter cancer.
  • New Zealand Fire Service  - A video produced by the New Zealand Fire Service detailing a comprehensive program of work that focuses on minimizing the possibility for cancer diagnosis in the fire service.
  • Firefighter Cancer Support Network
  • National Fallen Firefighters Foundation
  • FIRExTalk – PDX 2015 - A video from the FIRExTalk one-day firefighter conference discussing the risk of cancer and prevention techniques.