Live Burns and Liability

By: William Goldfeder
Battalion Chief
Loveland-Symmes Fire Department
Loveland, Ohio

A New York State fire officer is being charged with manslaughter after a firefighter was killed in a live fire burn training exercise, according to the Observer-Dispatch (see link below for the story). As always, our deepest sorrow and respect go out to all those involved in this situation. We can only comment on this specific incident based on the newspaper article. However, following are some of my personal observations concerning live burns.

Over the past 25 to 30 years, several firefighter deaths have occurred during
live-burn training. Now, without a doubt, live-burns are among the best methods for training our firefighters with any sense of realism. We have personally been on the scene, conducted, and led numerous live burns. As any fire officer will tell you, live fire training allows us to give the troops training that represents an experience that is as close to reality as possible.

One training burn we had a few years ago went wrong. We had a fire burning in a barrel on the ground floor of a single-family dwelling. In just the few seconds it took the firefighter assigned to monitor it to turn around, the fire took off very quickly. It went up wallpaper-lined stairs and forced several members to bail out of windows. Fortunately, some quick-thinking firefighters placed some ladders (that should have been there to begin with), and everyone got out. One firefighter suffered minor burns. It was a mess, and we thought we were following the proper safety standards.

We learned plenty of lessons from that incident. Probably the most important one I learned was that if you are the senior officer on a scene (training or actual), it doesn't matter if you have "command" or not; it is still your responsibility. Remember that the next time you hear someone say, "I was on the scene, but I didn't take command" or "I go to fires but never take command from my junior officers." I hear these comments and wonder why these phrases have become so popular.

Heck, if you are a fire officer on-scene, you are responsible, and so you at minimum, you'd better be functioning as SUPPORT to the incident commander. You still "own" that scene.

This incident in which the officer is being charged with manslaughter is a sad one. Here, the actual individual, the fire officer, who lit the fire is being charged. I know (as you do) that the last thing this officer was thinking of that evening was that he would be charged with manslaughter following what appears to be an honest attempt to train the firefighters. One of his arguments, according to the newspaper account, will be that he wasn't the only officer on the scene.

What were the responsibilities of the other fire officers? This story is far from over.

Can a training burn be even more dangerous than an actual fire? In some cases, YES. This is true especially when it comes to the "state of readiness" from a mental and psychological standpoint of those of all ranks on the scene. In a real fire, the element of surprise kicks in initially, and we are trained to be alert and aware within that element and under those conditions.

During a training activity, such as a live-burn, we are normally nowhere near that state of "alert." You know what I am talking about. At the live burn, no matter how hard you try, everyone knows it is "just" a training situation, so our "guard" gets let down--at varying degrees. Sure, we (hopefully) lay all the extra lines (hand and supply), have everyone assigned to crews, and set up accountability procedures. You'll probably have officers falling on top of each other and Safety Officers in, out, and above. Those who "want" to be an officer tend to get "special jobs" at these burns so that they too are involved--all in an effort to hopefully "do it right." Yet, firefighters are still getting injured and killed during
live fire burn training operations.

So, what's the answer (in our opinion) to solving the lethargic attitude during training or related fire department activites? These observations have no bearing at all on the incident cited in this column (we don't know anymore than what we have read).
The answer generally is competent, trained, motivated, and enthusiastic fire officers--fire officers who are responsible and awake, paying full attention with a constant "I do
give a damn attitude" while operating at a fire scene--training or actual. We need to constantly remind ourselves and others that we are absolutely responsible for sending our crews home at the end of the run, shift, or whatever. When their families or loved ones "turn them over to us" for a shift, when the tones go off or whatever, they are ours and must be returned in a condition equal to or better than the condition in which we received them. No kidding!

The "lethargic" mode we can sometimes find ourselves or our crews in could be a killer. The "symptoms" include laziness, poor or no training, faulty
equipment, unchecked tools and equipment, ill-equipped apparatus, poor
reports, inadequate staffing, a sloppy fire station, worn out recliner chairs, a desire to find out "what's on TV," focusing on "the meal," and on and on and on. It's the "it's someone else's problem" syndrome we see everyday.

So, how do we wake our troops up? Sit and wait for the front desk with the wake-up call? Who "wakes" up your troops? Well, someone has to be the Lou Holtz of your fire department! Someone has to constantly be reminding everyone of this kind of stuff. Share the articles. Watch the videos. Learn from other fire departments'
lessons learned and close calls. Never ever give up. That "someone" has to be the aggressive "coach" who will never let his folks down by getting into that "it's someone else's problem" mode. Quite simply, someone always has to be preaching to the others in your fire department to wake them up and have them pay attention--close attention--to what is going on in and outside the department and how all of it can be applied within their fire department all the crews can be sent home safely.

You have to be aggressive and creative to wake up your folks. Take relevant lessons learned-related articles, underline the issues, make copies, and put them in the mailbox of each of your department members. This information can even serve as the basis for training and drills. Post the articles on the bulletin boards for them to read. Wait--better yet-post them in strategic areas in your fire station bathrooms. No one reads the bulletin boards.

Put training information in paycheck envelopes. Mail the information home. Discuss "real" issues over coffee. Allow volunteers 15 to 20 minutes, even during department meetings, to cover relevant structural firefighting training/safety issues. In other words, use every opportunity as a fire officer to make clear to your troops your concerns and how you will take care of your crews during a fire activity, training or actual. Become relentless in training, educating, and communicating with your troops, and you'll get a reputation as the fire officer "who does give a damn."

Of course, a fire officer who fails to do anything like the above also sends a message to the troops. It's essentially a message that tells them "they get to sleep in" and just forget about life for a while.

The account of the incident referred to above and related stories are at www.uticaod.com/news/local2.htm.

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