Damp kit and poor storage conditions can impact on safety and morale. Lotte Debell reports on simple PPE storage solutions that can help firefighters get a new lease of life from their PPE by ensuring it is properly looked after.
Getting wet is an occupational hazard of being a firefighter. And while getting wet fighting a fire is rather less dangerous than the fire itself, it is still a problem. When a firefighter returns to the station after an incident in wet kit, it is essential that the garments dry out properly before they are needed again. Along with the long-term financial implications of not storing expensive PPE properly, there are also safety concerns associated with attending a fire in damp gear. But drying PPE can be difficult as modern garments are multi-layered and heavy, and kit rooms are often rather overlooked areas of fire stations.
Solving this problem, however, can be as simple as hanging the garments up properly in an environment where they have plenty of room for air to circulate. One company providing an effective solution is the US-based firm Geargrid, which specialises in durable wire products for a range of applications. One of the company’s products, and its biggest seller, is a wire-framed, wall-mounted storage locker for PPE. Geargrid’s UK sales agent Jason Wilkins explains that this locker accounts for approximately 70% of the company’s business and is currently used in around 75% of the UK’s international airports.
Geargrid’s clients have found that firefighters start looking after their kit better when using the open wire PPE storage lockers.
Above: the lockers installed at Edinburgh Airport, Scotland.
A growing number of fire and rescue services are also installing it, such as Surrey Fire and Rescue Service in the UK.
It was initially designed with input from firefighters, and its simple combination of three hooks and two shelves in each locker provides all the storage space a firefighter needs to keep their kit dry, organised, and in good, safe, operational condition. ‘Kitting firefighters out in turnout gear costs thousands of pounds, and if you hang a heavy jacket on a hook day-in, day-out, for months or years, not only will it not dry properly, but it also places additional strain on the garment,’ says Wilkins. ‘Even when hooks are located in drying rooms, which are designed to dry kit out more quickly, garments won’t dry evenly unless they are hung up properly.
PPE can still be damp the next day, especially in areas such as under the arms.’ Storing kit properly, Wilkins explains, means hanging it on a hanger so that the collars and shoulders don’t wear out, in an open locker that allows the air to circulate freely, in an ambient temperature. The garments can then drip dry naturally and evenly, helping to prevent the build-up of odours and mould. Geargrid’s open wire design allows air to circulate from every direction, and the configuration of shelves and hooks enables each firefighter to store their PPE in the way that works for them.
For example, storing garments in such a way that a wet jacket doesn’t drip into boots. There are direct cost benefits to ensuring that PPE is stored correctly. It lasts longer, for one, and repair bills for individual items are reduced. Storing PPE according to the manufacturer’s instructions can mean that repairs are performed under warranty, further reducing bills.
Giving firefighters their own space can also help to bring down the number of lost or misappropriated items of kit. ‘If firefighters have somewhere specific to store and organise their kit, it helps to foster a sense of ownership,’ says Wilkins. And fire services that have installed Geargrid report that this is definitely a benefit of the system. ‘We have found that our firefighters look after their kit better because of these lockers,’ says Mike Scott, Fire Chief at City of Eagan fire department, Minnesota, which installed the lockers in 2010. ‘When I started out in the fire service more than 30 years ago, we used to share lockers for our gear, but now that each firefighter has their own space, they are taking better care of their garments. We have also found that fewer items of kit go missing.
It is much easier to keep track of everything, and much harder for a firefighter to take someone else’s kit if they can’t find their own.’ City of Eagan fire department had tried a number of storage options before settling on Geargrid, including wooden lockers and solid metal lockers. Neither of these solutions allowed kit to dry properly, and the too-small size of the metal lockers meant garments frequently snagged as they were put in and taken out, leading to additional repairs.
A trial of a similar wire locker system was abandoned because the product was not robust enough, then Geargrid was installed and they haven’t looked back. ‘What we really value about this product is its high-quality, robust construction, and that it was made for firefighters, by firefighters,’ says Scott. ‘Budgets are tight, so value for money is important. We spend a lot of money on buying the best firefighter PPE we can to protect our firefighters, so shouldn’t we also make an investment to properly protect that PPE?’
Scott also cites Geargrid’s willingness to work with customers to create bespoke solutions as one of the reasons its lockers have been so successfully received. ‘We have approached them with specific requirements and they have modified the system to suit our needs. For example, our firefighters wanted somewhere to keep personal items in their lockers, so Geargrid designed a secure box with a padlock that attaches to the lockers, and our firefighters use these to store things like family photos – it all adds to the increased sense of pride they take in their workplace and their kit.’
For Scott and his firefighters, the added professionalism of the working environment is another plus, and this is echoed by Mark Dove, Watch Manager at Edinburgh Airport Fire and Rescue Service. Unlike the city of Eagan fire department, which has seen the Geargrid system in use for several years, Edinburgh Airport only installed the lockers in July, but the transformation to the work space has been, well, transformative.
The decision to install Geargrid came about as the station was investing in new PPE, and the current kit room was identified as being below standard. ‘The station was due an upgrade, and so an investment was made available to improve the kit room to ensure we could store the new PPE to manufacturer’s recommendations,’ says Watch Manager Dove. ‘Our previous kit was not stored correctly and this affected its operational life expectancy. Not drying the garments properly meant they were getting damp and mouldy, which was causing additional fatigue on the kit. Knowing we were purchasing new kit, we wanted to make sure we would get the best value for the money we were spending on it by ensuring that it would last longer. We were looking for something that would be beneficial in the long term.’
The problem for Dove was that the floor area of the kit room was very restricted – only around 5m by 5.4m – and they needed 58 lockers to fit in that space. ‘We initially thought we would have to split kit storage over two different areas, but Geargrid created a bespoke floor plan for us and managed to fit all 58 lockers in. And, even though the room is restricted in size, there is still room to move around safely.
Our firefighters can now go in, locate their kit, and be out again and operational very quickly.’ Initial feedback from firefighters has been positive, adds Dove. ‘They are no longer struggling to find their kit or losing items, and our busy kit room is now a much more professional environment. I recommended the purchase of this system and followed the process thorough from ordering, delivery, and system fit-out to operational use, and seeing it in place, I feel we have enhanced the station environment while providing best value for our budget.’
The bespoke fitting service is part of the package offered by Geargrid, explains Wilkins, and the company can either fit to existing space, as in the case of Edinburgh Airport, or can get involved right at the beginning of a station construction or refurbishment project to help get the most from the space and the system. The system is simple and quick to install, and is demountable so it can be moved easily if necessary. The benefits extend beyond practical and economic considerations, however. There is a genuine safety risk to not drying kit out properly. If damp PPE is worn into a fire situation, the high temperatures could cause scalding. For Scott in Minnesota, which sees very low temperatures in the winter, there are additional health issues to consider if firefighters wear wet kit in cold conditions.
Then there’s the fact that if kit is not stored correctly and is frequently damp, it will wear out quicker, meaning that firefighters could be going into fires wearing PPE that is not providing full protection. Investing in something as simple as wire kit storage lockers also sends a clear message to firefighters. It is not just about saving money, reducing lost kit and maximising the life of PPE, although those things are important economic considerations for any fire service. It is about investing in firefighters themselves and their safety. Ensuring that PPE does not suffer unnecessary wear and tear through improper storage, thereby better performing its primary role of protecting the wearer, and that firefighters do not have to risk being scalded by wearing damp kit to a fire, all contribute to a safer working environment.
So, however you look at it, this simple solution is going to pay dividends.
Article about PPE storage supplied, with thanks, from Gear Grid.