Maintaining a Relationship with your Turnout Gear

Posted on by Jay Tarley and Jaclyn Krah Cichowicz


Sent flowers? Check. Made dinner reservations? Check. Purchased one of those mandatory heart-shaped boxes of candy? Check. Conducted routine cleaning of your turnout gear… wait. What?

Valentine’s Day is all about putting in a little extra effort to maintain the important relationships in our lives. Way back in 2013, we began a tradition of taking a Valentine’s Day look at different respirators and their proper care. That initial science blog discussed the importance of Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) maintenance for fire fighters. This year, we want to spread the love to include turnout clothing and promote proper cleaning procedures in accordance with the NFPA 1851 Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting.

The facts are not something to be taken lightly, Valentine’s Day or not. Cancer is the second leading cause of deaths across the US. Fire fighters are at a greater risk of getting cancer than the general U.S. population.[i] The increased risk comes from inhalation exposures from incidents that produce airborne contaminants. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and NIOSH have addressed this risk over the years through respiratory protection product standards and administrative controls on the fireground, at vehicle fires, overhaul, etc.  But it is unwise to assume that when fire fighters exit the hot zone, and have removed their respirators, that they are safe from these contaminants.  Research and testing has shown that combustion by-products and contaminates are also being deposited on fire fighters skin, which is a contributing factor to cancers.  The majority of thermal protective hoods that provide heat/flame protection do not provide barrier protection from contaminates being deposited on the fire fighter’s neck and head.

It also turns out that turnout gear has the potential to store these hazardous contaminants that the respirators protected against during the initial exposure. Wearers of the exposed gear may then be exposed, or cross-contaminated, to these contaminants by inhaling them or absorbing them through the skin even after the dangerous situation has been resolved.

Cleaning – Routine and Advanced/Decontamination

If you use protective ensemble turnout gear, routine cleaning should be at the top of your list. Routine cleaning is a simple way for the end user to maintain his or her gear without taking it out of service. This may include brushing off or spot-cleaning dry debris or other contaminants. Performing routine cleaning immediately after an incident can reduce the damage to the gear, particularly the visibility markings. Remember, this is a long-term relationship. You need to take care of the gear in order for it to take care of you. A shower should also be taken as soon as possible following a fire response call to remove contaminates from the skin to minimize absorption into the body.

Of course, getting too pushy is a sure-fire way to ruin any relationship. Take care not to use aggressive cleaning agents, such as chlorine, which will damage the fibers of the protective fabrics. The use of any aggressive cleaning agents must be done in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. (If only our significant others came with these.)

Ensemble elements that have not been cleaned and appear to be unsoiled have been shown to contain numerous fire gas chemicals, including carcinogenic polynuclear aromatic compounds. Periodic cleaning is required to avoid use of ensemble elements that could be contaminated without visible evidence of soiling.    NFPA 1851

Advanced cleaning requires a thorough cleaning of both the ensemble and ensemble elements, which should be accomplished by washing them with cleaning agents. This will usually require the ensemble to be taken out of service temporarily. Machine cleaning is the most effective method for cleaning turnout gear, with front-loading washers being the preferred machine type. However, it is very important to ensure correct water temperatures, proper detergent, and even the speed and force of the spin cycle for each type of clothing piece being laundered. To do this, it is essential that you refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for the exact type of equipment that you use.

Important note: We are just covering the basics in this article. Be sure to refer to NFPA 1851 for a much more detailed list of considerations for laundering your turnout gear.


How NIOSH is improving the process

NIOSH is partnering with the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) and the NFPA to conduct studies to validate cleaning procedures for fire fighter personal protective equipment. This multi-year project is funded by the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency’s – Assistance to Firefighter Grants (AFG) Program Office. Current criteria are limited to the maximum wash temperature, range of detergent pH, and the highest permitted levels of acceleration for the washing machine. While information is provided in the appendix of the NFPA 1851 standard to address the effects of cleaning on turnout clothing, limited information is provided to determine the effectiveness of specific equipment, categories of supplies, and procedures for the adequate removal of contaminants. Driven by an increasing concern for fire fighter exposure to carcinogens and other potentially harmful chemicals through their protective clothing, we are examining the efficacy of current laundering procedures.

NIOSH is conducting preliminary research to identify the contaminants in fire fighter turnout gear. Additional research will clarify the best decontamination approaches and provide the scientific basis to make recommendations for cleaning this gear. Specifically, these procedures will be applied to identify the types of cleaning processes, equipment, agents, and other factors that demonstrate removal of both chemical and biological contaminants.

The fire service industry needs established methodologies that verify decontamination approaches that promote reliable cleaning techniques so that fire fighters are not unknowingly exposed to contaminated gear or damage their gear through frequent use and maintenance. The findings from this work should provide the basis for specific requirements and for appendix information to be incorporated into the future edition of NFPA 1851.

Jay Tarley, is a Physical Scientist in the NIOSH National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory.

Jaclyn Krah Cichowicz, MA, is a  Health Communications Specialist in the in the NIOSH National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory.


[i] Daniels RD, Kubale TL, Yiin JH, Dahm MM, Hales TR, Baris D, Zahm SH, Beaumont JJ, Waters KM, Pinkerton, LE [2014]. Mortality and cancer incidence in a pooled cohort of U.S. firefighters from San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia (1950-2009). Occup Environ Med; 71(6): 388-397.









Posted on by Jay Tarley and Jaclyn Krah Cichowicz

3 comments on “Maintaining a Relationship with your Turnout Gear”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    Tarley and Jaclyn I love your work. You always write the most in depth content on topics that are so valuable.

    FINALLY…a useful article that i can get benefit from.
    I appreciate your work and effort you gave here which is beneficial for everyone specially me. This is something i was looking for and according to mark as well.
    Five stars from my side to you.


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Page last reviewed: November 14, 2022
Page last updated: November 14, 2022