How Do I Clean My Protective Coat and Trouser?

( By Pat Freeman, Technical Services Manager, Globe Manufacturing Company, LLC, for NVFC )

Protective gear is a critical line of defense for a firefighter’s safety and health. Keeping this gear clean is a necessity both to ensure proper performance and to protect firefighters from exposure to dangerous carcinogens. Yet many firefighters are unsure of the proper way to clean their turnout gear.

As the world’s largest producer of protective clothing, Globe Manufacturing Company, LLC is often requested to provide information on cleaning turnout gear. Inevitably, we refer firefighters to NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, 2013 Revision. This standard has led to an increased awareness among firefighters for the need to have turnout clothing well maintained, including laundering on a regular basis. Additionally, NFPA 1851 sets minimum requirements for the inspection, care, and cleaning of all protective ensemble elements covered by NFPA 1971.
The Globe label on every one of our garments provides very basic information for laundering; however, what follows is a much more comprehensive set of instructions for cleaning gear. It should be noted that these instructions are always in accordance with the requirements set forth in the NFPA 1851 standard.

General Guidelines:

  • If the liners and/or the DRD are detachable, they should be removed from the shell and laundered separately. This is to prevent any contaminants on the shell from being transferred to the inner portions of the garment during the laundering process. It is also recommended that you turn the liner inside out prior to laundering to facilitate the drying of the inner layer.
  • All closures should be fastened: Hook and loop hook tape covering hook and loop pile, hooks and dees fastened, zippers zipped, and snaps fastened. It is imperative that you cover the hook portion of all hook and loop to prevent snagging during laundering and to help guard against premature wear or fraying of the hook and loop.
  • Proximity gear should never be machine washed under any conditions. For structural gear, we recommend a front loading washing machine, which does not have an agitator, and preferably one that is designated specifically for cleaning turnouts. A stainless steel tub should be utilized if available. We have been advised by care and cleaning facilities who work with protective clothing that the extractor G force is very important and they suggest that 85 Gs would be best, but certainly no more than 100 Gs which is the maximum advocated by NFPA 1851. If you are trying to convert RPMs to G force, you can do so using the following formula:
    CRPM = Cylinder RPM
    CD = Cylinder diameter (inches)
    G Forces = [CRPM x CRPM x CD] / 70,500
  • If you must use a top loader, we suggest utilizing a laundry bag to protect the inside of the washing machine from the hooks and dees (and to protect the hooks and dees from the agitator of a washing machine when using a top load model).

Machine Washing:

We are often asked if machine washing could affect the protective qualities of your turnout gear. Generally speaking, the special fabrics that make up the three layered protective garment contain inherent flame and heat resistance properties, which cannot be washed off or worn out. However, given the nature of the contaminants to which firefighters are exposed, you should not use the same machine that you do your home laundry in.

When machine washing, always prepare the clothing as directed by separating removable liners and DRDs from outer shells and fastening all closure systems. Use warm water and a normal cycle; water temperature should not exceed 105°F. Following each complete wash cycle, thoroughly rinse your garments. Liners should be turned inside out, while DRDs should be laundered in a mesh bag; every separable component should be laundered separately.

Protective clothing should always be washed by itself; do not overload the washing machine, do not use softeners, and NEVER use chlorine bleach. Our recommended method of drying is to hang in a shaded area that receives good cross ventilation or hang on a line and use a fan to circulate the air. Naturally, the turnout system will dry more quickly if you separate the layers for laundering, and turning the liner system inside out will also facilitate drying of the quilt thermal barrier.

Cleansers: 

Cleansers generally fall into two categories, detergents and soaps. Of the two, detergents make the best cleansers because they are formulated to contain special agents that help prevent redeposition of soil. Soil redeposition is soil which is first removed from a laundered article, but later in the same wash cycle is redeposited as a thin soil film on the entire surface of the article.

The most distinctive advantage of detergents is that they do not form curd in hard water. Soap curd is the material which forms a ring around the bathtub when bathing with soaps, and this curd is extremely difficult to rinse out of your garment.

All cleaning agents are clearly labeled as being either detergents or soaps; and we recommend liquid detergents, since they are less likely to leave any residue on the clothing. It should also be noted that NFPA 1851 requires that cleaning and contamination solutions shall have a pH range of not less than 6.0 pH and not greater than 10.5 pH.

Spot Cleaning and Pretreating: 

Precleaners can be used to clean light spots and stains on protective clothing. Squirt the precleaner onto the soiled area and gently rub fabric together until a light foam appears on the surface; this foam should be completely rinsed off with cool water prior to washing. A soft bristle brush, such as a toothbrush, may be used to gently scrub the soiled area for approximately one to one and a half minutes.

An alternative method would be to pretreat the garment by applying liquid detergent directly from the bottle onto the soiled area and proceed as with precleaners. Any spot cleaning or pretreating should be followed by machine washing to completely remove the pretreating solution prior to field use.

Special Cleaning Compounds: 

As a garment manufacturer, we have no control over formulations of the special cleaning compounds that are being advertised for use in the fire service. However, if you are interested in a specific cleaning agent, we recommend that you contact the manufacturer of the cleaner being considered and make your own determination as to suitability. We also suggest you ask for names of other departments currently using the product and see what their experience has been. Finally, you should always request and review any MSDS sheets on products being considered.

Bleach: 

One of the most often asked questions concerns the decontamination of a turnout system, especially with chlorine bleach. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should chlorine bleach be used on firefighters’ clothing; most systems contain KEVLAR®, either as a blend or as the primary fiber, and KEVLAR® is extremely susceptible to damage when exposed to bleach.

Decontamination: 

For extreme contamination with products of combustion, fire debris, or body fluids, removal of the contaminants by flushing with water as soon as possible is necessary, followed by appropriate cleaning. In the case of bloodborne pathogens, recommended decontamination procedures include using a .5 to 1% concentration of Lysol, or a 3-6% concentration of stabilized hydrogen peroxide. Liquid glutaraldehyde, available through commercial sources, will also provide high to intermediate levels of disinfectant activity.

The current edition of NFPA 1851 states that if a garment is verified as having been exposed to chemical, biological, or radiological agents, that garment should be immediately removed from service and retired. When decontamination is not possible, the garments should be discarded in accordance with local, state, and federal regulations. Garments that are discarded should be destroyed.

Outside Cleaning Assistance: 

One question we are often asked is whether the gear can be or even should be cleaned by a professional. NFPA 1851 requires that any company who wishes to provide cleaning, inspection, and/or repairs of turnouts be third party verified by an independent certification agency. The two agencies we are familiar with are Underwriters Laboratories or Intertek, both of whom not only verify independent service providers (ISPs) but also perform ensemble certification to NFPA 1971. Below are instructions on how to research these companies and locate ISPs they have independently verified for cleaning. We believe that these companies offer a valuable service, and we encourage our customers to directly contact any of these verified outside cleaning facilities to determine if they are able to meet the fire department’s needs. Some possible questions to ask would be if they provide any warranties on their services, and whether they are able to give any guarantees concerning the effectiveness of their cleaning.< To research companies on the UL web site:

  1. Go to www.ul.com.
  2. At bottom of home page, choose “Online Certifications Directory.”
  3. In “UL Category Code (options)” box in the middle of the block to the right, type QGVH, and hit SEARCH. Result is list of Verified ISPs.

To research companies on the Intertek web site:

  1. Go to www.Intertek.com.
  2. Click on the Certification tab and in the search bar type in “NFPA 1851.”
  3. Choose “Verification of NFPA 1851 Independent Service Providers (ISPs).”
  4. Click on “Directory of NFPA 1851 Verified ISP’s.” Result is current list of Verified ISPs.

Conclusion

In caring for your turnout clothing, you must always remember that it features three piece layering and multiple components, and you must consider each individual layer and component when deciding how to clean. We do encourage every department to keep their clothing clean and to regularly inspect and repair as needed. Having dirt, soot, and other debris clinging to your gear simply represents a health and safety hazard. Clean turnout gear is lighter in weight, lasts longer, and is more visible than dirty turnout gear.


Patricia Freeman is the Technical Services Manager for Globe Manufacturing Company, LLC in Pittsfield, NH. She has been involved with Globe and the fire service for over 30 years, in many different capacities, and acts as the co-chairman on the Globe Design Team, playing a role in research and development. Freeman serves on NFPA 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting and NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care & Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting.