Common Standards for CBRN PPE - An International Code

It has been more than nine years since terrorists attacked the World Trade Center Towers in New York City, and the Pentagon, but terrorism continues to erupt in many other areas of the world, imposing a continuing burden on emergency responders whose duty it is to protect the people and the property of their countries. One global commonality is that all countries want to provide their emergency responders the best protection available when they respond to terrorist attacks.  Personal protective equipment (PPE) is the key to achieving that goal, especially to protect those responders in incidents involving CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) agents.  Historically, the use of personal protective equipment began with the firefighter, but in recent years it has changed and evolved to meet the needs of other emergency responders as well.

There are many internationally based PPE manufacturers who supply the world’s responders with personal protection equipment – Remploy and Avon in the United Kingdom, for example; Draeger in Germany; and many U.S. companies, including MSA, Blauer, and others. These companies, and most other international manufacturers, are listed on the Responder Knowledge Base (, which provides dependable information on products, standards, certifications, grants, and other PPE-related information.

One of the most helpful features of the Responder Knowledge Base is that it also provides information on the PPE equipment standards followed by international manufacturers.  These standards are a combination of descriptive standards, performance standards, and, most importantly, the testing standards that allow purchasers and responders alike to have confidence in the protection the PPE gear provides the wearer in responding to CBRN incidents.

“C” Times Three: Collaboration, Coordination, and Cooperation

An incredibly cooperative network exists between the numerous agencies and organizations involved in establishing, testing, and enforcing the PPE standards that are used by almost all PPE manufacturers worldwide.  The collaborative efforts in this area were undoubtedly given additional impetus by the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, but actually began much earlier. In the United States, both before and after the 9/11 attacks, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the U.S. Army were working together to develop the standards and testing procedures required to ensure the reliability, effectiveness, and durability of counterterrorism equipment.

Today, those same partners have formed a fine machine – with each of the agencies named playing its own well defined role. The NFPA establishes the standards for CBRN ensembles, and NIOSH approves the CBRN standards set for air-purifying escape respirators (APERs), air-purifying respirators (APRs), powered-air-purifying respirators (PAPRs), and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) – SCBA certification must be consistent, moreover, with guidelines established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

But establishing the standards is only part of the process – the equipment still must be tested, independently and under real-life conditions. Approvals are therefore based on positive results from rigorous tests carried out by accredited third-party testing entities. The NIOSH tests for respirators, for example, are developed and implemented at NIOSH’s National Personal Protection Technology Laboratory in Morgantown, West Virginia.

The Highest Priorities: Effectiveness and Functionality 

Internationally, it is generally accepted that CBRN PPE includes suit, hood and cowl, socks, gloves, respirator, and boots. However, responders do not simply mix and match the equipment available. Instead, the CBRN PPE must be a standardized ensemble that follows internationally accepted standards established by the NFPA and NIOSH. All CBRN ensembles, therefore, must be completely NFPA-certified as a particular and, of greater importance, must provide protection to the upper and lower torso, head, arms, legs, hands, wrists, and feet as well as the human respiratory system. In addition, all respirators designed to meet the levels of protection required by the NFPA must be certified by NIOSH as CBRN-compliant. 

The standards for NFPA’s CBRN testing and the performance standards for CBRN protective ensembles – spelled out in NFPA 1994 – were originally published in 2001 and cover three es or levels of protection designed for a single-exposure wearing. NFPA 1994 was revised in 2007 to add a fourth level of protection and to move the highest level, 1, to an alternate standard designated as NFPA 1991 (“Standards for Vapor Protective Ensembles for Hazardous Materials Emergencies”).

The 1 ensemble was developed, tested, and manufactured to meet the mandatory CBRN requirements set for all vapor-protective ensembles. The specialized high-performance suit is not only totally encapsulating but also includes SCBA gear. In an age where easy-on/easy-off, low-stress, comfort, and controlled temperatures are the qualities preferred in PPE equipment to provide adequate protection to the responder, 1 suits are by necessity stressful, hot, clumsy, and time-consuming – both to put on and to take off.

The Snake Pit Warning:LH 2 ensembles also include an SCBA and provide liquid protection.  The 2 ensemble offers a very high level of protection for atmospheric conditions that: (a) are officially designated as “IDLH” (immediately dangerous to life or health); (b) protect the responder against chemical vapors and liquids, in addition to biological agents and radiological particulates; and (c) require a NIOSH-approved SCBA.  Both 2 and 3 garments are tested: (a) for permeation resistance against HD mustard and GC Soman nerve agents; and (b) for permeation resistance against liquid and gaseous industrial chemicals.

3 ensembles – which provide lower levels of protection against chemical vapors/liquids, biological agents, and radiological particulates – use NIOSH-certified CBRN air-purifying respirators and powered air-purifying respirators at conditions belowLH and for longer periods of time.  The 2007 version of NFPA 1994 added a 4 ensemble that offers protection against particulates – including certain human disease-causing agents (pathogens), toxins, and/or radiological dusts or mists – and, like all other NFPA 1994 levels of protection, requires a NIOSH-approved CBRN respirator.  These are the standards and es that international buyers seek when purchasing CBRN PPE.

In the past, emergency responders often had to improvise, in large part for budgetary reasons, to find the right gear and equipment that would allow them not only to do their jobs effectively but also to protect themselves at the same time. For responders worldwide, affordability is still a big factor in deciding what PPE to purchase, and some manufacturers have taken advantage of the situation by offering sub-standard PPE at supposedly affordable prices.  Today, however, this practice is the exception, and responders and manufacturers are focused primarily on following the internationally accepted, and tested, standards and guidelines set by responsible agencies. Putting safety first does perhaps increase the cost of PPE, but when the lives of their own people are involved, funding is more likely to be provided by homeland-security agencies worldwide to purchase the best protection available for their responders.


Website homepage photo: The C50 CBRN mask provides high protection, outstanding field of vision and superior comfort. The C50 was developed for the military and law enforcement communities requiring NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) or CE certifications, making it the most versatile choice available for purchase by law enforcement, government agencies, hazmat and first responders. Photo compliments of Avon Protection Systems Inc. (

diana hopkins
Diana Hopkins

Diana Hopkins is the creator of the consulting firm “Solutions for Standards.” She is a 12-year veteran of AOAC INTERNATIONAL and former senior director of AOAC Standards Development. Most of her work since the 2001 terrorist attacks has focused on standards development in the fields of homeland security and emergency management. In addition to being an advocate of ethics and quality in standards development, Hopkins is also a certified first responder and a recognized expert in technical administration, governance, and process development and improvement.



No tags to display


Translate »