Turnout Gear Cleaning: What You Need To Know

By: Mike Duyck, President, Emergency Technical Decon

Throughout my career and in working alongside fellow firefighters, I have seen them do some amazing things under extreme conditions largely due to the clothing they were wearing. Firefighting turnout gear is more than just protective clothing—it’s a lifeline for firefighters facing the dangers of intense heat, flames, and hazardous materials. Unfortunately, the very gear designed to shield firefighters can also become a source of risk and illness due to contaminants absorbed on the scene. In recent years, there has been growing awareness of the link between turnout gear and cancer among firefighters, highlighting the critical importance of proper cleaning and maintenance practices. I wish I knew what I have learned now during my career as a firefighter about this topic. 

NFPA 1851: The Standard

The NFPA Standard 1851 provides comprehensive guidelines for the inspection, cleaning, repair, and retirement of firefighting protective ensembles including turnout gear. This standard serves as a crucial resource for fire departments and personnel, outlining best practices to maintain gear integrity and minimize health risks.

Key components of NFPA 1851 include regular inspection schedules, proper cleaning procedures, record-keeping for gear maintenance, and guidelines for retiring gear reaching the end of its service life. Adhering to NFPA 1851 ensures that firefighting turnout gear remains effective in protecting firefighters while reducing the potential for health hazards associated with prolonged exposure to contaminants.

If interested, you can find more information on NFPA 1851 at Emergency Technical Decon’s blog.

The Link Between Turnout Gear and Cancer

Firefighters face numerous occupational hazards daily, including exposure to carcinogens present in smoke, soot, and other contaminants. Over time, these contaminants can adhere to turnout gear, creating a potential health risk for firefighters. Studies have shown elevated cancer rates among firefighters compared to the general population, with certain types of cancer such as mesothelioma, leukemia, and lung cancer being most prevalent.

The absorption of harmful substances by turnout gear underscores the need for thorough cleaning protocols. Failure to adequately clean gear can lead to prolonged exposure to carcinogens, increasing the risk of developing cancer and other health issues among firefighters. Recognizing this risk, regulatory bodies like the NFPA have established standards and guidelines to ensure proper gear maintenance and reduce exposure levels.

The Different Levels of Turnout Gear Cleaning

Cleaning firefighting turnout gear involves several levels of cleaning, each addressing different aspects of contamination and gear maintenance. Turnout gear care, boot care and inspection and repair are all important parts of the levels of cleaning. 

  • Routine Cleaning: After each use, turnout gear should undergo routine cleaning to remove surface contaminants such as dirt, debris, and soot. This typically involves brushing off excess particles and using mild soap and water for initial cleaning.
  • Advanced Cleaning: Periodically, turnout gear requires more thorough cleaning to remove embedded contaminants that routine cleaning may not address. Advanced cleaning methods may include machine washing using specialized detergents designed for firefighting gear or professional cleaning services provided by certified organizations.
  • Advanced Inspection and Testing: Beyond cleaning, NFPA 1851 recommends  advanced inspection and testing to assess gear integrity and performance. This includes visual inspections, functional testing of protective elements such as thermal liners and moisture barriers, and conducting necessary repairs or replacements as per manufacturer guidelines.

Do's and Don’ts of Turnout Gear Cleaning

Effective cleaning of firefighting turnout gear requires adherence to best practices to ensure gear performance and firefighter safety. While departments might differ with specific Do’s and Dont's, here are some of the recommended guidelines across the board to follow for effective cleaning: 


  • Follow manufacturer guidelines for cleaning and maintenance.
  • Train personnel on proper gear handling, cleaning, and maintenance protocols.
  • Inspect gear regularly for damage or contamination.
  • Use NFPA-compliant cleaning agents and equipment.
  • Document cleaning and inspection procedures for record-keeping and compliance.


  • Use harsh chemicals or solvents that can damage protective materials.
  • Skip routine cleaning or inspection schedules.
  • Ignore signs of wear, tear, or contamination on gear.
  • Leave dirty gear sitting in bags wet as mold will quickly develop.
  • Exceed recommended cleaning or drying temperatures that may compromise gear integrity.

For more, check out this recent blog from MSA Safety.

Improving Turnout Gear Lifespan

The lifespan of firefighting turnout gear depends on various factors such as usage frequency, exposure to contaminants, maintenance practices, and compliance with manufacturer and NFPA guidelines. While gear manufacturers provide estimated service lives for turnout gear, ongoing inspections, testing, and maintenance play an important role in determining gear longevity.

Regular cleaning, proper storage, timely repairs, and retirement based on NFPA 1851 guidelines are essential for maximizing turnout gear lifespan. Adhering to NFPA standards, implementing appropriate cleaning levels, following dos and don’ts, and managing gear lifespan effectively is integral to maintaining gear performance and protecting the well-being of firefighters on the front lines. 

Emergent’s Tactical Board can help track firefighter exposure. This can not only help with documenting maintenance and inspections, but also implementing retirement protocols for gear reaching the end of its service life. Properly cleaning firefighting turnout gear is not just a matter of hygiene—it's a critical aspect of ensuring firefighter safety and reducing health risks associated with occupational exposures. By prioritizing proper gear maintenance and cleaning practices, fire departments can mitigate risks, enhance operational readiness, and safeguard the health of their personnel.

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