Drying Out
Feb. 1, 2008

By Rick Markley

“Whether it has just come out of the laundry or off an intense fireground, turnout gear gets wet. And when it does, it must be dried thoroughly before the next call. McKinney, Texas, Fire Chief Mark Wallace says it is important to have personal protective equipment that is fully dry. At a fire, the water in partially wet gear can boil, causing steam burns to the firefighter wearing it.

Air drying gear is cheap but takes a long time. Using a dryer has purchase and use costs, but works fast. There also are space considerations and the likelihood that gear will get cleaned. So like most things, choosing the best method for drying turnout gear comes down to departmental circumstances and resources.

The National Fire Protection Association’s regulation 1851 on turnout gear briefly touches on drying techniques. NFPA says to first follow manufacturers’ care instructions. If there are none, NFPA says that air drying should be done in a well-ventilated area, away from direct sunlight. For machine drying, 1851 advises that all closures, such as snaps, hooks and zippers, be fastened. It also says to use no-heat or air-dry options when available. If those options are not available, the maximum drying temperature must not exceed 105°F. The regulation says not to allow the machine to fully remove the moisture during the heat cycle, but rather to switch to no heat or remove the gear and allow it to air dry the rest of the way.

Lion Apparel, a turnout gear manufacturer, recommends that after laundering, the gear be turned inside out to expose the inner surfaces. The company says to dry the gear by hanging it in a shaded area that receives good cross ventilation or using a fan to circulate the air. The company says not to use automatic dryers because the mechanical action and excessive heat may damage or shrink the garments. Also, it says that hanging garments to dry in direct or indirect sunlight, or in fluorescent light will severely reduce the strength of the seams and discolor the garments.”

In McKinney, Wallace has been buying drying systems by Air Ram. That system blows unheated air through perforated pipes. McKinney has six fire stations and a seventh under construction. It is a career department with 146 firefighters that covers 60.5 square miles. Wallace says some stations still are using low-heat tumble dryers while others air dry bunker gear. The switch to drying cabinets follows recommendations by the department’s safety gear committee, he says.

“Heating the outside of the gear as it tumbles in a low-heat dryer doesn’t dry the gear evenly,” Wallace says. “Air drying using no system and without exposing the gear to direct sunlight takes a long time, and the gear may not be dry for the next shift.”

The Air Ram system will dry as many as six sets of pants, coats, boots and gloves in about four hours, Wallace says. Because of the time it takes for air drying, he says, firefighters are less likely to wash their gear often. Another downside to air drying is the amount of space required if there is a lot of gear to be dried after a big call.

For a small department, getting eight or 10 sets of gear quickly cleaned and dried is an issue following a large fire. As a fallback, Rielage keeps several sets of older gear on hand to use in such emergencies. But the number of sets and the sizes are limiting factors.”

“Like Wallace, Rielage says air drying alone can keep gear out of service for one day or longer. His plan to combine low-heat and air drying should shave a few hours off drying time while still preserving the gear’s integrity, he says.”

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