NFPA 1851 covers the Standard Care and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Firefighting and Proximity Firefighting. There are three types of turnout cleaning as defined by NFPA 1851, basic, advanced, and specialized (National Fire Protection Association [NFPA], 2014). Basic cleaning is employed for simple spot cleaning and is done in a utility sink with a soft brush and soap (NFPA, 2014). For PPE contaminated beyond a simple spot, the process of advanced cleaning is required (NFPA, 2014). Advanced cleaning is done in a washing machine, with liners and shells separated and washed separately (NFPA, 2014). Specialized cleaning is done by a professional contractor when PPE is exposed to unusual contaminants and is beyond the scope of this discussion.
In regards to cleaning PPE, NFPA 1851 directs organizations to “…examine the manufacturer’s label and user information for instructions on cleaning and drying that the manufacturer provided with the element. In the absence of manufacturer’s instructions or manufacturer’s approval of alternative procedures for the ensemble or ensemble element, the advanced cleaning and drying procedures provided in [NFPA 1851] shall be used” (NFPA, 2014). Lion Manufacturing provides extensive care and maintenance instructions with their PPE. When washing PPE, Lion recommends using a “…front-loading extractor or front-loading washing machine with a tumbling action for washing” (LM, 2011).
Historically, many Firefighters, thought (incorrectly) that extractors provided the best cleaning, because they “extracted” contaminants. However, the term extractor is misleading. Therefore, a brief overview of washing machine history and technology is warranted.
Spinning wet laundry to remove water using centrifugal force became possible with the advent of high speed electric motors (Ndola, n.d.). This process was originally done in a machine called an extractor, as the water was “extracted” while spinning (Ndola, n.d.). As technology evolved, the processes were combined and the modern washing machine as we know it today came to be (Ndola, n.d.). Because modern washing machines accomplish both washing and extraction (spinning) they were once referred to as washer/extractors (Ndola, n.d.). However, over time the term extractor was dropped and now washer/extractors are simply referred to as “washers” (Ndola, n.d.).
In the lodging, prison and hospital industries the term washer/extractor has remained, largely for marketing purposes. By extracting water at very high speeds nearly all the moisture is removed, greatly reducing drying times resulting in lower utility costs and faster turnaround times (Wash, 2011). The irony is that high-speed extraction (spinning) of PPE is prohibited by both NFPA 1851 and Lion Manufacturing (NFPA, 2014) (LM,2011). NFPA 1851 and Lion Manufacturing explicitly state that PPE should not be subjected to high extraction (spin) speeds due to the potential for damage to garments (max. allowable is 100G’s) (NFPA, 2014) (LM, 2011). It is the washing and rinsing with an appropriate cleaning solution that cleans PPE, not “extraction”.
In addition to extract/spin speed guidelines, Lion Manufacturing and NFPA 1851 recommend that washer water temperatures not exceed 105 degrees (NFPA, 2014)(LM, 2011) and Lion Manufacturing and Citrosqueeze PPE cleaning solution recommend that PPE be run through multiple rinse cycles during the washing process. Therefore, what is required is a front-loading washing machine that can be programmed for multiple rinse cycles, a spin speed of less than 100G’s, and a water temp less than 105 degrees in order to adequately clean turnout gear in accordance with Lion Manufacturing, NFPA 1851 and Citrosqueeze PPE cleaning solution.
It is important to note that currently there is no published literature that quantifies the degree to which front-load washers vs front-load washer/extractors vs top-loaders clean PPE. However, front-load washers and/or front-load washer/extractors are considered by industry to be the standard in PPE care, as evidenced by manufacturer recommendations.
Lastly, many Firefighters have expressed concern over the potential for cross contamination as a result of washing Class B uniforms, linens etc. in the same machine that PPE is washed in. There is currently no evidence to support this concern and NFPA 1851 allows for this practice, so long as an empty load with detergent is run after cleaning PPE (NFPA, 2014). However, industry and others including the Interagency Board, a voluntary working group of more than 150 emergency preparedness and response professionals recommend that “Protective clothing should be washed in machines specifically designated for this type of use in accordance with procedures meeting the manufacturer’s specifications” (Interagency Board [IAB], 2016).