Life Expectancy for Protective Clothing
As the NFPA Technical Committee on firefighters protective clothing worked through the year 2008 revision of NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, one of the most debated issues continued to be “What is the life expectancy of protective clothing?” Although the committee was not able to reach complete agreement on the answer to this question, there was consensus that structural ensemble elements must be retired ten years after the date of manufacture, and that proximity outer shells must be retired five years after the date of manufacture. However, the Annex does contain language explaining that this does not mean all ensemble elements will last or should remain in service for the full five or ten years – just that five year old proximity outer shells and ten year old structural gear must be retired. The standard provides additional criteria for inspection and retirement as well.
Having explained the mandatory requirements found in NFPA 1851, it is fairly well understood in the industry that the average life of a structural turnout suit is three to five years, and that proximity outer shells become worn out even sooner than that. It is important to remember, however, that average means some garments have lasted much longer and other garments not as long. Some segments of the fire service have even suggested that since the NFPA clothing standard is revised every five years, then five years should be the maximum time to leave garments in service. While this would ensure that as technology improves, garments would automatically be upgraded to meet new requirements and offer new levels of safety, it could leave the false impression that anything less than five years old is still perfectly compliant.
The reality is that the life span of any protective clothing is entirely dependent upon the type and amount of field use to which each separate garment has been exposed. Contributing factors to this include frequency of maintenance, storage conditions, exposures, and other issues that are beyond the garment manufacturer or material supplier’s control. Facilities that specialize in care and cleaning will advise that they have seen clothing that is much older than five years and still in excellent shape; likewise, however, they have seen instances where the first time a garment was worn it was exposed to circumstances that totally destroyed the clothing. Since the purpose of firefighters clothing is to protect the wearer, if the gear has saved a life or prevented serious injury just once, then it has done its job.
It is also important to remember that protective clothing is a component system, not a single layer, and each component needs to be evaluated in its own right, with each layer routinely inspected for continued serviceability. For example, we have evaluated garments wherein the outer shell appears visually to be in excellent condition; however, closer inspection of the thermal liner and moisture barrier will reveal rips or tears that would not be obvious in a cursory examination. Discoloration to any layer of the protective ensemble may be an indication that the garment is no longer able to provide the same level of protection as when it was new. Any discoloration should be carefully inspected.
The bottom line, regardless of when the clothing was produced, is that the safety officer or authority having jurisdiction must routinely perform an advanced inspection on all protective ensemble elements in order to assure that they are clean, maintained, and still safe. Just knowing the age of the gear cannot do that.