Fire Training Injuries: Case Studies for Instructors

By Walter A. Morris

The Maine Fire Service Institute (MFSI) is the fire training and certification agency for the State of Maine. As fire training program manager for MFSI, I was recently asked to investigate two incidents in which firefighters suffered injuries and personal protective equipment was significantly damaged.

The first incident occurred in southern Maine during a structural fire attack exercise being conducted for three local fire departments in a two-story concrete non-gas-fired live fire training structure. On completion of the pre-burn briefing, the crews reported to the training site for a walk-through of the burn building and preparation for the first training evolution. Two of the training officers had prepared the fire room prior to the participant briefing. On entering the burn building, the attack crew encountered heavy fire conditions with fire lapping out of the burn room doorway. Using two “bursts” of water, the attack crew applied water to the ceiling of the burn room and proceeded to enter the burn room. A few seconds later, the fire in the burn room intensified, and the attack crew was exposed to the high-temperature conditions which resulted in burn injuries and damage to the personal protective equipment (PPE) they wore.

The second incident occurred in mid-coast Maine. This live fire training exercise was being conducted in a three-story concrete and wood non-gas-fired live fire training structure. The purpose of the exercise was to provide “fire behavior burns” for the local Firefighter I & II Academy program. “Fire behavior burns” are intended to introduce new firefighters to the various phases of fire development and are usually allowed to progress from the incipient phase of fire development to the free-burning phase of fire development with little or no application of water and limited ventilation. During “fire behavior burns,” the students were to witness the transfer of heat through convection, conduction and radiation; experience the levels of heat intensity and smoke density throughout the burn room; and gain valuable insight to the chemistry and physics of fire.

While the lead instructor conducted the classroom portion of the program, the other instructors set up and prepared the burn facility, including apparatus placement, water supply, and the deployment of hoselines.

The first “fire behavior burn” incident was completed without incident. No injuries or damaged PPE was noted. During the second “fire behavior burn,” the instructor leading the evolution noticed that the “flip-down” shield on the helmet of one student was warped and the reflective tetrahedrons on another student’s helmet were disfigured. Water was applied to the fire, and the students and instructors exited the burn room. Once outside, additional damage to the PPE (including crazed self-contained breathing apparatus face pieces) worn by students and instructors was found. One firefighter received a burn injury to his shoulder.

The fact that these incidents resulted in only minor burn injuries may be attributed to three important factors:

1.     All firefighters were wearing all of their required PPE.

2.     The PPE worn by the firefighters was properly fitted, maintained, and inspected in accordance with the requirements of the Maine Bureau of Labor Standards.

3.     In the first incident, the instructor recognized the hazard to the students created by the high-heat conditions, properly directed the firefighter operating the nozzle to immediately direct a stream of water to the seat of the fire, and immediately evacuated everyone from the burn room. In the second incident, the attack crew leader recognized the hazard to the crew created by the rapid progress of the fire conditions and properly directed the firefighter operating the nozzle to immediately direct a stream of water to the seat of the fire.

The investigation of these incidents revealed some common contributing factors, including the following:

  1. Excessive Fuel Load. Although the weight of a typical wood pallet will vary according to the wood used in construction, the number of slats, and other factors, research indicates that the average weight of a typical pallet is approximately 40 lbs. The use of three full pallets, along with broken pieces of pallets and hay, suggests that the fuel load exceeded 100 lbs. for the training fires. The fuel load used, particularly for a fire behavior burn during which water application and ventilation were very limited, created high-heat conditions that contributed to PPE damage.
  1. Operating in the Flow Path. Flow path is defined as the volume of air or hot gases, smoke, and small particles produced by the combustion process between an inlet and outlet that allows the movement of heat and smoke from the higher pressure within the fire area toward the lower-pressure areas accessible through doorways, window openings, and roof openings. With no other ventilation provided, the flow path of the training fires was out of the doorway of the burn room, exposing the participants to high-heat conditions.
  1. Ventilation-Limited Fire. A fire in an enclosed building is restricted because there is insufficient oxygen for the fire to burn as rapidly as it would with an unlimited supply of oxygen. Increasing the supply of oxygen to a ventilation-limited fire when the fire attack crew entered resulted in rapid fire progress leading to very high-heat conditions.
  1. Candlemoth Syndrome. Candlemoth syndrome is “a firefighting cousin of target fixation, where firefighters are drawn closely to a fire.” Fire instructors must recognize that firefighters, particularly new firefighters exposed to their first live fire training evolution, will tend to stare at the fire for long periods of time. This constant staring at the fire will expose them; their PPE; and, most importantly, their SCBA face piece to high-heat conditions. Instructors must ensure that students are instructed to periodically look away from the fire to minimize this exposure to high-heat conditions.   
  1. Attempt to Demonstrate Flameover (Rollover). The intent of the instructors to provide a vision of flameover (rollover) is understandable, but the authority having jurisdiction must make sure that instructors understand that the training facility is not designed for such evolutions. Instructors using the facility must understand the following:

·       The room geometry (e.g., ceiling height, openings to rooms) affects the attainment of flameover (rollover).

·       Fire growth in a room is fairly linear until the flame height reaches the ceiling; thereafter, rapid acceleration can be expected.

·       Venting a ventilation-controlled fire can result in an increase in the heat release rate in the fire structure.

·       Smoke is fuel! Flameover (rollover) is the ignition of unburned fuel (pyrolysate) from the originating fire that has accumulated at the ceiling level.  

NFPA 1403

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1403, Standard for Live Fire Training Evolutions, addresses these contributing factors. Previous editions of NFPA 1403 recommended that students participating in live fire training evolutions be trained in 11 subjects to meet the minimum job performance requirements for Fire Fighter I. The 2018 edition contains this stipulation but has added prerequisites in five additional subject areas:

1.     Fire dynamics,

2.     Health and safety,

3.     Fundamentals of fire behavior,

4.      Fire development in a compartment, and

5.      Nozzle techniques and door control.

The 2018 edition includes other significant changes from the 2012 edition, such as that an instructor must meet the requirements of an Instructor I and that the instructor-in-charge must meet the requirements of an Instructor II, the need to rotate the ignition officer, and additional safety requirements for flashover training evolutions.

All fire instructors and training officers involved in live fire training evolutions are encouraged to become familiar with the additional safety requirements in the new edition of NFPA 1403.


WALTER A. MORRIS is a 40-year veteran of the fire service and chief of the Jefferson (ME) Fire Department. He is a fire training program manager for the State of Maine Fire Training Program. He has a master’s degree in fire protection management from John Jay College in New York City. He is nationally certified fire instructor and a member of the board of directors of the National Fire Academy Alumni Association.