Validity of Turnout Retirement Age

Author: Dr. Meredith McQuerry, Florida State University

Editor: Cassandra Whitley, LION

NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, mandates a retirement age of 10 years from the gear’s manufacture date. Given the differences in use, exposure, care, and storage of each set of bunker gear across the country, firefighters often wonder how valid the 10-year retirement age is. Where did this number come from? How was it determined? Has turnout gear been tested against it? The 10-year rule comes from the time span of two revision cycles for NFPA 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting. After two revision cycles, significant changes to design and performance requirements would likely occur and justify turnout suit replacement.

Post-Use Durability Study 

A comprehensive study, conducted at the University of Kentucky (UK) between 2008-2013 has made great headway in determining how appropriate the recommended 10-year life is for structural turnout coats and pants. Led by Dr. Elizabeth Easter, UK researchers assessed close to 150 used turnout coats and pants that were between 2 and 20+ years from their manufacture date. The study included three phases: gear 2-10 years old from career departments (Phase I), gear 2-10 years old from volunteer departments (Phase II), and retired gear 10-20+ years old (Phase III).

Each coat and set of pants were put through both non-destructive and destructive testing per NFPA 1851 and 1971 performance requirements. Some of the advanced visual inspections conducted within fire departments include the flashlight test, “cup test” for leakage evaluation, thermal liner light test, and closure system functionality. In addition, each of the garments’ composite layers (i.e. outer shell, moisture barrier, and thermal liner) were tested for vertical flammability, seam strength, tear strength, breaking strength, thermal protective performance (TPP), total heat loss (THL) and hydrostatic water penetration. Results of the visual inspections and performance testing were used to assess the legitimacy of the current 10-year retirement age.

Retirement Age Validity

From this study, researchers found that gear significantly deteriorates at, or prior, to the 10-year mark from date of manufacture.

While TPP, THL, and flammability results supported a wear life of at least 10 years, tear resistance, breaking strength, seam strength, and water penetration results did not. These findings are also a reminder that the 10-year retirement age does not guarantee a 10-year wear life.

Almost 25% of garments less than 4 years of age failed the hydrostatic leakage test for the moisture barrier layer. For gear at least 10 years from the manufacture date, 75% of the outer shells tested failed to meet the minimum tear strength requirement. Retired garments in Phase III also failed to meet the minimum requirement for the liner light evaluation specified in NFPA 1851. Ultimately, results from this study support a maximum wear life of 10 years with some garments failing certain criteria much earlier (3-4 years).

Need for Future Research

Using the knowledge gained by the University of Kentucky durability study, researchers should continue to evaluate the most appropriate wear life of turnout gear. Documentation of calls, exposures, cleaning, repair, and storage are needed to compare use with performance. Another difficult challenge of assessing wear life during use is the need to conduct destructive test methods (flammability, TPP, THL, and strength testing) to determine performance. Additional methods should be explored for in-use assessments of strength and durability.

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Meredith McQuerry’s Bio:

Dr. Meredith McQuerry is an Assistant Professor in the Retail, Merchandising, & Product Development department at Florida State University (FSU).  Her research focuses on clothing comfort physiology, functional design for personal protective equipment (PPE), product durability, wear life, and clothing care procedures. The majority of her work has been applied to firefighter protective clothing systems, using a systems level testing approach to engineer a better performing garment for the wearer. Her research uses textile testing and full systems wear trials to assess the impact of clothing on human performance during physical activity.


2 thoughts on “Validity of Turnout Retirement Age”

  1. Hi Steve,

    We contacted Meredith, to help answer your above questions.

    In response to question 1, you can request a copy of Phase II of the study written by Stacy Trenkamp. This should be on file at the University of Kentucky library but unfortunately, is not available online. She conducted some analysis between Phase I (career) and Phase II (volunteer) garments that were both between 2-10 years from manufacture date. You can also check out the journal article published on the entire study (Phases I-III) here:

    As far as question 2 is concerned, not to my knowledge. You can refer to the NFPA’s annual firefighter fatalities report but it does not relate injuries/fatalities directly back to specific PPE durability/performance properties. Of course, burns can, in general, be associated with thermal protective performance (TPP), etc. but there is no known direct connection reported. This would certainly be a great area for future research!

  2. This is a very interesting study. Some follow up questions:
    1. what is the breakdown of gear failure based on career versus volunteer departments and also the number of fires and/or runs from each type of department.
    2. is there any findings that document firefighter injuries and/or fatalities that result from the different
    findings of gear failure such as TPP, THL, flammability ,tear resistance, breaking strength, seam strength, and water penetration .
    Thank you
    steve rossi

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