Live-Fire Training LODDs: We Must Heed the Lessons Learned

On January 26, 2007, the Boulder (CO) Fire Department held a remembrance ceremony in memory of Firefighters Scott Smith and William Duran on the 25th anniversary of their deaths, which resulted from a live-fire training tragedy on January 26, 1982. Lieutenant Daniel Cutler also was seriously burned in that event. This incident was instrumental in the development of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions.

THE BOULDER EXERCISE

This live-fire training drill, billed as “a smoke drill,” was conducted in an abandoned wood-frame chicken coop. To generate smoke, tires, motor oil, and tar paper were burned and a smoke bomb was used. The materials used generated a great volume of heat while burning. While the third engine company of the day was inside performing the drill, the low-density fiberboard ceiling ignited behind the firefighters, trapping them and the inexperienced training supervisor in the building.


(1) Firefighters prepare to enter a training fire in an apartment complex. [Photos 1, 4 by Steve Redick.]
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According to the analysis of the incident [these were pre-National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) days], conducted by David P. Demers, P.E., the most significant factor relative to the fatalities and serious injury was the extremely rapid development of fire (flashover) caused by the combustible low-density fiberboard ceiling. Other contributing factors were the use of tires and other high-heat potential fuels in an open flaming mode to produce smoke, the use of an inadequate-size hoseline (a booster line) inside the building, the lack of a water supply line or other means of reliable water supply on the training ground, and the absence of personnel with backup hoselines at the scene. The overall lack of planning, supervision, and control at this exercise directly contributed to the conditions that caused the fatalities and serious injury.


(2) Firefighter sets a proper training fire. [Photos 2, 3 by Tim Olk.]
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Another major factor in this incident, as well as in most live-fire training accidents, was the lack of experience of the instructor conducting the training. Instructors leading this training should be trained in how to conduct a proper burn and the types of fuels that should and should not be used. Being an instructor, a senior firefighter, or an officer does not automatically qualify one to teach live-fire training.

WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?

How many of today’s firefighters know about the Boulder training disaster or that it provided the impetus for NFPA 1403? How many fire departments follow NFPA 1403? Judging from recent events, it would appear that the answers to these questions would be “a very low number.” Some in the fire service tend to forget what happened before and have not researched or learned from the history of firefighter deaths. We kill firefighters over and over again in the same exact ways: Failing to learn from past mistakes is a critical failure.

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In recent months, we lost Cadet Firefighter Racheal Wilson in Baltimore, Maryland, in a live-fire training incident. Early indications point to the finding that NFPA 1403 was not followed. A Florida fire department held a “Rookie Roast” to test the probies’ reaction to heat and smoke fire and took pictures of the instructors’ holding flammable liquids. They claim that the liquids were used only for the parts of the burn when inexperienced firefighters were not in the structure.

Why in 2007, 25 years after the Boulder incident, do we still continue to injure and kill firefighters in live-fire training?

In early 2006, a chief commented after a live-fire training incident in which two recruit firefighters were burned: “If a fireman is in the department and doesn’t get burned, he isn’t doing his job. If they don’t get burned, I don’t want them in our department. If they are afraid to get burned, they’re on the wrong job.” Doesn’t it surprise you that someone in today’s fire service would make this comment? Maybe some of us would be surprised. But, the fire service has performed poorly when it comes to learning from the past-thus, attitudes like this still exist.


(3) Firefighter practicing outside vent techniques during a training fire.
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Also in 2006, a fire department burned four firefighters trying to teach flashover training in a house trailer. We all know a house trailer flashes over. They found out how quickly it does so.

Numerous line-of-duty deaths related to live-fire training have occurred over the past 25 years. In addition to the two in Boulder in 1982, there were three in Milford, Michigan; one in Greenwood, Delaware; one in Lairdsville, New York; two in Osceola County, Florida; one in Port Everglades, Florida; and one (an instructor) in Lewistown, Pennsylvania. Since 1982, 15 instructors or students were killed in the line of duty during live-fire training.

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In addition, several other firefighters have been injured or have been involved in close calls. One such case occurred in Parsippany, New Jersey, where three firefighters were burned in a converted school bus being used for training fires. In Hillandale, Maryland, three firefighters were burned during a public education training fire display that had gone wrong. What message does burning firefighters send to the community?

In Indiana, I know of several departments that neglect to follow NFPA 1403. They say it takes the reality out of the training, and it is too difficult for a small department to comply. Also in Indiana, there has been an instance where live-fire training was conducted with only four firefighters on the training ground. In another training burn incident, a firefighter was sent to the hospital and five sets of turnout gear were ruined.

In the 2001 Lairdsville, New York, incident, Alan G. Baird III was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide for his role in the death of Recruit Firefighter Bradley Golden. Baird and the fire department did not follow NFPA 1403; they said they did not know it existed. Two other firefighters were also severely burned in this incident, in which a recruit was used as a victim during the exercise. Also, a couch was set on fire to increase the smoke production. After this incident, the NFPA made 1403 available to all fire departments free of charge.


(4) Training fire in an apartment complex.
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It is appalling that a U.S. fire department would not be familiar with NFPA 1403 in the year 2007. Yet, fire departments throughout the country still claim they are not aware of the standard and continue to use gasoline, diesel fuel, couches, mattresses, and other materials outside of the NFPA 1403 standard for live-fire training evolutions. Some departments may know about NFPA 1403 but choose to ignore it because of the preparation time it takes and what they say is a lack of realism in the training. The sad thing is that many have forgotten why NFPA 1403 came into existence in the first place.

NFPA 1403

Now, we know why NFPA 1403 was created, but do we know what NFPA 1403 really means to us as fire service instructors?

NFPA 1403 has evolved into an all-encompassing live-fire training standard. It is divided into nine chapters-Administration, Referenced Publications, Definitions, Acquired Structures, Gas-Fired Training Center Buildings, Non-Gas Fired Training Center Buildings, Exterior Props, Exterior Class B Fires, and Records and Reports-and four annexes-Explanatory Material, Live Fire Evolution Sample Checklist, Responsibilities of Personnel, and Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke in Training.

Instructors must realize how serious and dangerous this training is. Are you and your department really following NFPA 1403? Are you aware that a chief officer has been jailed for his involvement in a line-of-duty death during a live-fire training exercise? Does that change how you or your department will treat training fires in acquired structures?

When your department conducts a live-fire training exercise, what is the drill’s objective? Many would say, search, fire attack, vent, or firefighter rescue. However, if you look at the live-fire training tragedies over the years, most of them occurred when the exercise was attempting to accomplish more than one objective. The focus of live-fire training should be fire attack, not search or any other goal. Why? Because we lose track of accountability; we become complacent, and firefighters die. Remember, if we put out the fire, usually our problems go away. However, in live-fire training we tend to allow the fire to grow a little bigger than normal, we watch it, and we let firefighters get deeper into the building, allowing conditions to rapidly change and cause firefighter deaths. In the fires listed above, the exercises were designed to meet more than one objective.

WHAT HAS BEEN DONE?

What are other agencies and states doing about NFPA 1403 in the wake of these recent deaths? Some states like North Carolina, Iowa, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Kentucky have taken a very proactive approach to live-fire training. They don’t allow just any firefighter to teach it; you have to be fully credentialed.

For my final Executive Fire Officer paper, I researched compliance with NFPA 1403 and compliance with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM). Ninety-two departments responded to the survey. Of those 92 departments, 55/92, or 60 percent, said they always followed NFPA 1403 while conducting live-fire training. However, 64/94, or 70 percent, said they always followed the IDEM permit requirements for air quality standards, in accordance with state law. Thirty-two percent (29/92) of the departments had experienced a live-burn injury. Forty-nine percent (45/92) required some type of training; however, most of this training was nothing more than an Instructor I class. Only 73 percent (67/92) of departments responding said they would support a live-fire instructor training standard.

The building and materials being burned in a training fire don’t behave any differently than those burning in a real structure fire. Let’s all help prevent firefighter deaths and injuries by making firefighter safety the primary goal. And, let’s not forget the brothers and sisters who have died in training-related incidents. Remember so that we do not repeat these mistakes.

Resources

• American Heat Video, “NFPA 1403 and the Boulder (CO) Incident.”

• Live Fire Instructor Standards for the states of Illinois, Florida, North Carolina, Iowa, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey.

• NFPA 1403, available at www.nfpa.org/.

• www.cdc.gov/niosh/rehome.html/.

Brian P. Kazmierzak is a16-year veteran of the fire service. Since 1994, he has been employed by the Clay Fire Territory, South Bend, Indiana, where he is division chief of training and safety. He is the MABAS Division 201 Tactical Rescue Team Task Force leader and a hazmat specialist for FEMA’s US&R IN-TF1. He has two fire service related associate’s degrees and a bachelor’s degree in fire service administration, and is a recent graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. He is the Close Calls editor for www.firefighterclosecalls.com.

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