Inspection Guidelines for Protective Clothing
All protective clothing should be regularly inspected to ensure continued serviceability in accordance with the requirements of NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fighting. The information contained herein is only a brief synopsis of the requirements of that standard.
Inspection should take place after each cleaning, and following any application where the clothing may have been damaged or contaminated. Damaged clothing should be immediately removed from service until the decision to repair or retire has been made by the authority having jurisdiction. All clothing should be cleaned prior to inspection. The following represent minimum criteria for inspection and should be considered basic rather than all inclusive.
Char and Heat Damage: All three layers should be examined for charred, burned, or discolored areas that may result in loss of tensile strength and material degradation. To check for weakening of fabric, aggressively flex the material and attempt to push a finger or thumb through the fabric. If you are using a natural colored fabric (i.e. one that has not been dyed), it may be difficult to determine discoloration from a thermal exposure. If you have been involved in such a situation, you should examine the inside of the shell and the barrier layer directly beneath the outer shell. Oftentimes, even if the outer shell has not changed color, the moisture barrier layer will be darkened in areas that have seen the greatest amount of heat. Any area suspected of having been exposed to a high thermal load should be checked for weakening.
Fabric or Material Damage: Clothing that has become torn, ripped, cut, abraded or otherwise damaged by wear should be repaired. Moisture barrier materials should be checked for peeling or cracking, delamination or damage to the seam seal tape, all of which are generally signs of wear and require replacement.
Thread or Seam Damage: All seams in each separate layer of the garment should be inspected for thread or seam damage and repaired as necessary.
Discoloration: Discoloration to any of the three layers of the protective clothing should be evaluated. Check all discolored or faded areas for tensile strength by aggressively flexing the material and attempting to push a finger or thumb through the fabric. Any loss of strength or weakening of the materials to the degree where the material can be torn with manual pressure is a sign of deterioration and the garment should be removed from service for repair or retirement. Discoloration of the moisture barrier layer may indicate abrasion or other damage that would render the fabric incapable of preventing liquid entry.
Moisture Barriers: There is a simple field test you can perform to check any moisture barrier: since this is a requirement of NFPA 1851, we are including it in its entirety as presented in the standard.
This evaluation method shall apply to moisture and thermal barrier liners found in structural or proximity fire fighting protective garment elements that are in service.
At a minimum, the front and back body panels of each protective garment element shall be evaluated. Specific areas of the body panels that shall be evaluated include the upper back, shoulders, underarms, sleeves, waist area, and crotch area. The liner evaluation test shall also be performed on any areas of the garment where damage or loss of thermal protection is detected or expected.
In addition to the areas listed above, where potential damage to the garment outer shell or thermal barrier has been detected, the evaluation shall also be conducted on the corresponding area of the moisture barrier. Where potential damage to the garment moisture barrier is detected, the evaluation shall be conducted on that area as well.
Position the liner system so that the moisture barrier is oriented upward and will come into contact with the liquid exposure during the evaluation. Moisture barrier seams shall be positioned so that the seam divides the specimen into two equal halves.
An alcohol-tap water mixture shall be made by combining 1 part rubbing alcohol, 70 percent isopropanol alcohol with 6 parts of tap water. A 5 gal bucket or similar container shall be used to support the liner during evaluation.
The evaluation procedure shall be performed at room temperature, using the following procedure:
If possible, separate the liner from the outer shell.
Orient the liner such that the moisture barrier is on the outside.
Position the dry liner over the bucket with the thermal barrier facing down and the moisture barrier side facing up.
Cup the liner area that is being evaluated, so that it is lower than surrounding liner.
Pour 1 cup of the alcohol-tap water mixture onto the moisture barrier in the cupped area of the liner.
The liner shall be visually inspected for leakage on the thermal barrier side after 3 minutes. If any liquid passes through the moisture barrier and wets the thermal liner, the liner shall be removed from service and repaired or replaced.
After the evaluation procedure has been performed, the liner shall be cleaned and allowed to completely dry to remove all traces of the alcohol-tap water mixture.
Knit Distortion: All knit areas of the garments shall be examined for loss of strength, loss of shape, or loss of elasticity.
Reflective Trim: Trim that is loose but still reflective may be restitched, while trim that has become burned or otherwise damaged must be replaced. Note that the trim may appear to be undamaged to the human eye when it has actually lost much of the ability to reflect. To check for continued reflectivity, perform a simple "flashlight" test. Standing a minimum of 40 feet from the trim sample to be examined, hold a flashlight at eye level and aim the light beam at the sample to be evaluated. Compare the brightness of the reflected light coming back to a sample of "new" or unused trim. If the reflected light is substantially less than that seen on the new trim, the trim needs to be replaced.
Hardware: Check all hardware, including snaps and dee rings, pocket snaps, zippers, and take-up buckles to ensure functionality. Hook & loop should be inspected to ensure that contamination has not affected functionality and that stitching remains secure.
Contamination: Check for signs of contaminants that cannot be removed with normal laundering. For example, tar and paint adhering to a garment even after extensive cleaning can affect the flame resistant properties of the material.
Proximity Garments: NFPA 1971 requires an aluminized outer shell, which must be inspected for loss of reflectivity. The standard requires that the outer shell have a radiant reflective capability, and that the only areas allowed to be non-reflective are the collar lining (that which comes into contact with the neck) and a 1” expanse around the sleeve cuffs and trouser leg cuffs. To the best of our knowledge, there is no way to restore an aluminized surface that has become abraded to the point where it is no longer reflective. Thus, the only means of refurbishing an outer shell is to patch the affected area with the same aluminized fabric as the garment is produced from to cover any areas that are no longer reflective. Obviously, some judgments need to be made as to whether this is cost effective, and/or safe.
Retirement: In general, once a garment has reached the point where repairs will cost more than 50% of the price of a new garment, you may want to consider having it retired. When considering retirement, the authority having jurisdiction should take into account things like the amount of ground-in soil contained in the garment, any stains or clinging debris of unknown origin, and overall condition of each individual layer. If the fibers of the various layers are beginning to show wear in the form of abrasion, especially in high stress areas such as the outer shell inseam of trousers, there is no way to restore them to like new condition, nor any way in which to prevent further breakdown, and repair to garments with these conditions are usually not cost effective.
In conclusion, each and every one of the items contained in this bulletin should be considered when trying to decide if a garment has reached its useful life span. The bottom line, regardless of when the clothing was produced, is that the protective clothing be inspected regularly in order to assure that it is clean, maintained, and still safe. Just knowing the age of the garments cannot do that and for safety's sake, any judgment call should be made erring on the side of caution.