Measuring Up: PPE Standards Save Lives

June 1, 2007
When 1980s TV icon MacGyver was called upon to fight the forces of evil, he needed little more than a roll of duct tape and a good screwdriver to accomplish his seemingly impossible missions. Invariably, the world would be saved and our hero would emerge unscathed—and all in only an hour!

Despite the undeniable versatility of duct tape, the hazards associated with real-life emergencies often cannot be engineered away. Whether dealing with fires, emergency medical situations, hazardous materials incidents or terrorist attacks, first responders’ only means of protection is their primary protective clothing; specifically, the structural fire fighting ensemble.

Standards for the manufacture of protective clothing and equipment very literally keep fire fighters alive. Today, most, if not all, fire departments are purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE) that meets or exceeds the minimum National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, says Richard M. Duffy, assistant to the general president, Occupational Health, Safety and Medicine, International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). “Over the past three decades, nearly all of the injuries attributed to poor PPE have been eliminated,” he says.

It was, however, only relatively recently (1973) that the NFPA, in conjunction with the National Bureau of Standards, began to develop performance standards for firefighters’ protective clothing. The NFPA standards are intended to protect first responders in emergencies involving chemical, biological and other hazards, while providing manufacturers with guidelines for design, testing and certification. In March, the U.S .Department of Homeland Security (DHS) adopted eight of the NFPA first responder PPE standards, shedding light on their life-saving value and, it is hoped, helping to ensure the safety of emergency personnel.

From the Lab to the Field

Development of the NFPA standards became feasible with the introduction of new materials and the availability of data from extensive research.

Interestingly, protective clothing (coats, pants, helmets, boots and gloves) has been in existence nearly as long as have most fire departments, and the earliest turnout coats (full-length, cotton canvas duck or rubber-coated cotton) were similar to those worn by most fire fighters today. But the evolution of protective garments – and the standards for their manufacture – has been shaped by everything from world wars to space missions.

In the early 1960s, new fibers were introduced; specifically, a heat-resistant, nylon-like fiber (HT-1; DuPont) for use in industry and aviator clothing. Further research led to the introduction of Nomex, one of the first commercially available and economically feasible heat-resistant fibers. The advent of synthetic fabrics – allowing for more materials to be designed for specific needs – has led to substantial improvements in the fabrics’ protective capabilities over the last two decades.

Project HEROES

The 2002 launch of IAFF’s Project HEROES (Homeland Emergency Response Operational and Equipment Systems) played a major role in optimizing fire fighter protective equipment for all homeland emergency responses (see Table 1), and serves as an excellent example of the way in which research has contributed to the evolution of protective clothing and the standards for their manufacture.

Extensive testing and evaluations of the Project HEROES ensemble have been completed, notes Duffy. He explains that testing has included evaluations to demonstrate resistance to permeation and penetration by chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) agents after simulated use of the garment material to ensure that the protection remains in place over the full service life of the ensemble.

Overall integrity testing of the Project HEROES ensemble using man-in-simulant test procedures revealed overall protection factors between 450 and 540. These protection factors, stresses Duffy, are far higher than the factor of 360 specified in the 2007 edition of NFPA standards. Furthermore, a properly fitted, standard (non-Project HEROES) ensemble provided protection factors of only 13 and 14. Duffy goes on to cite the results of practical performance testing of prototype ensembles, in which end-users “unanimously preferred” the Project HEROES ensemble to their current structural fire fighting protective clothing, indicating that it was lighter, more comfortable and kept them drier.

Work is currently underway to finalize the ensemble design and conduct a series of field tests at selected cities, Duffy reports, adding, “The IAFF has endeavored to maximize the end-user input throughout the design process of the new Project HEROES ensemble design throughout the process.”

DHS Takes Note

Of the eight NFPA first responder PPE standards adopted by the DHS, three were adopted for the first time, and the remaining five were implemented as “re-adoptions” of the latest editions currently recognized by the DHS (see Table 2). Adoption of the standards followed passage of Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD-8) in December 2003, but only after a lengthy political battle (See “Behind the Scenes”).

“Adoption of PPE standards by the DHS and enforcement of HSPD-8 will ensure that fire departments will be purchasing equipment that meets the minimum standards and, most important, is certified to meet those standards,” says Duffy. Of particular interest among the standards adopted and re-adopted by the DHS are NFPA 1971, 1991 and 2122.

NFPA 1971: Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting (2007 Edition) – The current edition of NFPA 1971 was issued earlier this year, and provides design, performance, testing and certification requirements for structural fire fighting protective ensembles and ensemble elements that include coats, trousers, coveralls, helmets, gloves, footwear and interface components for both structural and proximity fire fighting.

It was NFPA 1971 that, for the first time, provided a minimum performance requirement that fire departments and clothing manufacturers could use in specifying protective clothing, says Duffy.

First issued in 1975, NFPA 1971 began as a purchase specification and since has undergone six revisions. Among the revisions to NFPA 1971 were those to make the standard more user-friendly (1981), include more performance requirements and fewer specifications (1986) and incorporate third-party certification, labeling and listing for the protective clothing, while adding a new chapter to address interface items (1991).

In October 1994, the NFPA Standards Council reorganized the Technical Committee on Fire Service Protective Clothing and Equipment as the Project on Fire and Emergency Services Protective Clothing and Equipment operating with seven technical committees and a technical correlating committee. NFPA 1971 is now the responsibility of the Technical Committee on Structural and Proximity Fire Fighting Protective Clothing and Equipment.

The 1997 (fifth) edition of NFPA 1971 combined four former standards on structural fire fighting protective clothing – NFPA 1971 (Standard on Protective Clothing for Structural Fire Fighting), NFPA 1972 (Standard on Helmets for Structural Fire Fighting), NFPA 1973 (Standard on Gloves for Structural Fire Fighting) and NFPA 1974 (Standard on Protective Footwear for Structural Fire Fighting) – into a single document: NFPA 1971, Standard on Protective Ensemble for Structural Fire Fighting.

The 2000 (sixth) edition represented a complete revision to the 1997 edition, Duffy explains. Among other changes, the edition introduced new requirements for evaporative heat transfer through garments through a total heat-loss test, for evaluating thermal insulation in areas of garments that are most likely to become compressed through a conductive and compressive heat-resistance test, for evaluating hand dexterity with gloves through a new hand function test and for evaluating the durability of barrier materials through additional preconditioning prior to selected physical tests of the barrier materials. The heat-loss test and the resulting performance value were substantiated during this revision cycle by a major research study conducted by the IAFF.

The current edition of NFPA 1971 once again represents a complete revision, with requirements of two former standards – the second edition of NFPA 1971 (Standard on Protective Ensemble for Structural Fire Fighting) and the second edition of NFPA 1976 (Standard on Protective Ensemble for Proximity Fire Fighting) – combined into a single document titled, NFPA 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting.

Other than combining the two documents, says Duffy, “the major change represented in this 2007 edition is that of the optional requirements for protection from CBRN terrorism agents (specified chemicals, biological agents, and radiological particulate) that could be released as a result of a terrorism attack.”

Duffy explains that these optional requirements may be selected by fire departments that are concerned about first response to such weapons-of-mass-destruction incidents for which “normal” fire fighting protective ensembles offer little or no protection from CBRN terrorism agents, and for which supplementary protective ensembles that are certified as compliant with NFPA 1994 (Standard on Protective Ensembles for First Responders to CBRN Terrorism Incidents) are unlikely to be provided to the vast majority of fire fighting first responders.

He goes on to note that the CBRN optional protection can be applied only to an entire ensemble, rather than the individual ensemble elements. In other words, the design and performance of the entire ensemble – including the CBRN self-contained breathing apparatus – provides the CBRN protection for the wearer and depends on the proper use of the entire ensemble to accomplish this protection. No combination of individual ensemble elements short of the entire assembled ensemble will provide CBRN protection.

“These optional CBRN requirements, which apply to both structural and proximity fire fighting protective ensembles, are built into the construction of the ‘basic’ fire fighting protective ensemble elements; nothing needs to be added to or subtracted from the basic fire fighting protective clothing in order to achieve the protection from CBRN terrorism agents,” Duffy notes. The optional CBRN requirements do not decrease any of the protection for the fire fighting environments in which these ensembles are used.

NFPA 1991: Standard on Vapor-Protective Ensembles for Hazardous Materials Emergencies (2005 Edition) – NFPA 1991 puts forth minimum requirements for the design, performance, testing and certification of vapor-protective ensembles and individual protective elements for chemical vapor protection for fire and emergency service personnel. The standard documentation states that, “Additional optional criteria are provided for ensembles and individual protective elements that provide protection for chemical flash fire escape, liquefied gas, chemical and biological warfare agents, and chemical and biological terrorism incidents.” NFPA 1991 is based on work begun in 1986.

NFPA 2112: Standard on Flame-Resistant Garments for Protection of Industrial Personnel Against Flash Fire (2007 Edition) – NFPA 2112 provides design, construction, evaluation and certification of flame-resistant garments for use by industrial personnel. The standard was developed to prevent the work clothing of industrial employees from contributing to burn injuries, and to reduce the severity of burn injuries resulting from accidental exposure to hydrocarbon flash fires. NFPA 2112, and garments certified to this standard, are not for emergency response use (whether wild land, structural or proximity fire fighting; technical rescue; or any other fire-fighting operations or hazardous materials emergencies.

A Look Back, An Eye to the Future

“Standards for fire fighter PPE will remain effective as long as we have the continued involvement of the fire service on standard-developing committees,” says Duffy, whose fire fighter PPE experience spans nearly 30 years. “We strive to improve and upgrade PPE standards on a continual basis, and have demonstrated that there are no obstacles we can’t overcome.”

There is, however, much more that remains to be done to ensure optimum protection of fire fighters. Duffy cautions that issues related to ergonomics and biomechanical design of protective ensembles have yet to be sufficiently addressed. He also underscores the IAFF’s view that all PPE has specific retirement criteria, to ensure that the clothing and equipment used by fire fighters is as up-to-date as possible. “Regardless of condition, PPE should be pulled from the field after 10 years, which is equivalent to two cycles of NFPA standard (again, needing to be updated every 5 years),” Duffy explains.

Maintaining that the objectives to better protect first responders have clearly been met, Duffy acknowledges that it can take time for individual fire departments to “catch up” with new standards. “Our goal of completely eliminating such injuries has not yet been met, but we will continue our efforts toward achieving that end,” he says.

Sidebar: Behind the Scenes

“On Dec. 17, 2003, a Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD-8) was issued, requiring that all equipment – including personal protective equipment – purchased through federal preparedness grants for first responders conform to equipment standards in place at the time of purchase. The directive also requires other federal departments and agencies that support the purchase of first responder equipment to coordinate their programs with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and conform to the same standards. (The full directive can be found at This was a major win for the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), especially in light of concerns about non-compliant and offshore-produced protective garments entering the North American marketplace and being purchased by fire departments with federal funds.

“In October 2003, the IAFF presented a resolution to the federal government’s Interagency Board on Equipment Standardization and Interoperability (IAB), requiring that all federal grant funds be used by U.S. fire departments to purchase only equipment that meets recognized standards. What followed was considerable – and heated – debate; political pressure was brought to bear by some members of Congress, concerned that manufacturers in their districts would no longer be able to sell non-compliant products.

“In the end, the resolution was passed with a unanimous vote, and then-chairman of the IAB, Deputy Chief A.D. Vickery of the Seattle Fire Department, issued a letter with our demands to then-DHS Secretary Ridge. These efforts lead to the inclusion within the directive of compliance with standards when federal funds are utilized.” - Richard M. Duffy

Laura Bruck has been a medical writer and editor since 1987.

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