The other side of the 10-year retirement debate


By Vicki Smith
LION Manager of Products and Services Marketing

Although the content of NFPA 1851 Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting is not as widely known as NFPA 1971 and NFPA 1500, one sentence has become the source of fire service debate.  The sentence is located in Chapter 10 Retirement, Disposition, and Special Incident Procedure, 10.1 Retirement, 10.1.2 and requires that departments must retire structural turnouts and other elements no more than 10 years from the date of manufacture. NFPA 1851, 10.1.2 states “Structural fire fighting ensembles and ensemble elements shall be retired in accordance with 10.2.1, no longer than 10 years from the date the ensemble or ensemble elements were manufactured.”

Recently Jeff and Grace Stull wrote a column on FireRescue1 titled “The debate: Mandatory gear retirement at 10 years.  Their column addresses the argument of the contingent of fire service members who believe their PPE should last longer than 10 years.

The Stulls write, “The thinking was that after 10 years, new changes in materials and testing technology, plus the implementation of new requirements, would make the PPE obsolete. This reasoning was combined with the observation that most garments last on the average 4 to 6 years before they have to be replaced for wear and tear.”

Unfortunately, we hear from some fire departments a misconception that the requirements of Chapter 10 mean that PPE should last 10 years and therefore these fire departments incorrectly believe that something is wrong with the quality of PPE when it needs to be replaced after 5 or 6 years.

The problem, of course, is that one isolated sentence has received much attention when the 12 Chapters and appendix that surround it have probably not gotten as much attention as they deserve. NFPA makes no statement that the  minimum expectation for the useful life of ensembles or ensemble elements is 10 years, yet somehow section 10.1.2 has come to mean this in some people’s minds.

The NFPA 1851 establishes the minimum requirements for the selection, care and maintenance of PPE.  The purpose is for fire departments to develop a program that incorporates the minimum requirements.  The standard contains four chapters dedicated to how PPE must be cared for and maintained in order to remain in safe condition.

Garment specifications and quality of materials can affect wearlife, but these are only two factors.  For example, 7.0 ounce outer shells will wear out faster than heavier outer shell fabrics.  Areas on garments with no reinforcements or self fabric reinforcements will abrade faster than leather reinforcements. Helmets made with thermoplastic shells will not last as long as composite shells. In any case, all

materials and components which comprise PPE deteriorate over time.  In order to slow the rate of deterioration, PPE must be cleaned, inspected and repaired, and stored in suitable conditions.  These activities are requirements in the standard and must be part of the program.  Furthermore the appendix describes other conditions such as frequency of use and types of exposures as factors in how long gear will remain safe for use.  Not all PPE in use receives the same wear and tear.

Should any PPE be expected to last 10 years?  For turnout gear, the answer is no.  While it is possible, if turnout gear has been subject to very low levels of wear and tear, and has been consistently maintained in a regular cleaning, inspection and repair program and stored properly, that turnout gear could last up to 10 years.  Yet that is the exception.  Helmets made from composites seem to generally last longer than turnout gear, but 10 years is pushing the limit for helmet wearlife. Almost no gloves or footwear lasts more than 3-5 years under any circumstances. Further, PPE can be destroyed on its first use under a catastrophic or contamination incident.  Does the NFPA 1851 say PPE must last for 10 years?  Of course, it doesn’t.  There are too many variables in how PPE is used and how it is cared for to set a minimum time for it to be safe to use.  The standard says 10 years is the longest time PPE should remain in service.  Experience indicates PPE that receives a lot of wear and tear, and isn’t properly maintained and stored could deteriorate to the point it cannot be economically repaired within 3-5 years. Even gear that is properly maintained can wear out sooner if it is heavily used. To maximize the useful life of PPE, it must be regularly maintained to stop problems before they become a safety or health risk to the fire fighter and to fix damage before it progresses to the point it cannot be repaired.  In addition to retirement criteria, NFPA 1851 describes the program necessary to keep PPE fit for safe use.

For more information, LION’s User Instructions Safety and Training Guides for helmets, boots, gloves, and turnout gear provide detailed information on proper care,use maintenance and storage as well as wearlife.  And all of this information is now provided in Lion’s unique online training videos for NFPA 1971 structural PPE , available at LionFireAcademy.com.