By James Ellison
July 7, 2018 — Laundering clothes has come a long way since Keith Richards’ mother worked as a washing machine demonstrator in their hometown east of London.
“She could make a real show of how to load a Hotpoint,” said the Rolling Stone guitarist of his mum in his autobiography. “They didn’t even have running water. You had to fill them and empty them with a bucket.”
If running those machines seemed like rocket science to the good folks of Dartford during postwar England, imagine what they’d think of the huge commercial machines working in today’s fire stations..At the fire stations in Cary, N.C., turnout gear goes into what David Ranes, chief of logistics, calls “washing extractors.” They are big machines, the kind you’ll see in hotel basements or commercial laundries, capable of cleaning up to 65 pounds of firefighter clothing.
That kind of laundering is what is recommended in the latest report of the Research Foundation for the National Fire Protection Association. And if a municipality can afford to provide more than one set of turnout gear to its firefighters, that washing gets done after every fire.
The organization also suggests fire departments understand the varied qualities of detergents to ensure removal of contaminants suspected of causing cancer from the specialty fabrics firefighters require, writes Jeffrey Stull, lead author of the NFPA study. He is a specialist in personal protective equipment.
In Cary, where firefighters have had two sets of gear for the past 15 years, Ranes said his team has used several kinds of detergents, some available off the shelves of any supermarket, others from janitorial supply houses. The preferred product has a neutral pH with a value between 6 and 10; those numbers are in line with an NFPA Safety Data sheet recommendation. (Most detergents have a high pH.) Additional attributes to a product are non-toxic to employees and safe for the environment.
The key item, Stull said in a May PPE update, is the washer extractor. “While some organizations may have attempted to make do with standard washing machines, top-loading machines are no longer acceptable. Even the newer front-loading household machines simply do not provide the appropriate characteristics for cleaning turnout clothing, particularly when high-efficiency/low water utilization is now the practice with this type of equipment.”
Stull said an effective cleaning agent must be able to remove persistent sooty contaminants and suspected carcinogens often trapped in the set and lodged in the materials themselves. “As many fireground contaminants are relatively complex chemicals representing a range of different compounds, the ability of a single cleaning agent to neutralize or react with fire service contaminants is a fairly broad claim,” he said.
Manufactures are now testing their products with an eye toward presentations at the ongoing Fire Department Instructor’s Conference in Indianapolis, Ind., this past spring. The NFPA has recommended a verification process to assess and evaluate the effectiveness of contaminant cleaning before issuing overall cleaning guidance.
Research into best practices to minimize carcinogenic exposure has been going on for more than 20 years. Through July 2017, the research team has carried out research in a number of areas related to the assessment of contamination removal in turnout clothing.
- Target contaminants have been defined that include various heavy metals, semi-volatile organic compounds, and bacteria that represent exposure threats to firefighters.
- Specific procedures have been developed for contaminating turnout clothing samples in the laboratory that emulate levels of fireground chemical and biological exposures; these procedures have been shown to be repeatable and stable for use in the proposed cleaning verification kit process.
- A number of cleaning verification kit process details have been established to promote a low cost evaluation approach using surrogate materials, clothing samples, and washing procedures to enable easy implementation.
- A variety of experiments have been carried out providing initial findings for the effectiveness of certain wash conditions in removing both chemical and biological contaminants. The early emphasis has been on wash temperature and the type of detergent used in the wash process.
It is anticipated that final procedures will be completed this year and that the overall fire service guidance will be ready in this summer.
James Ellison covered police and fire news in Yonkers and Mount Vernon, N.Y., in the 1970s.