Live Burn: 1403 or No Fire!

The greatest dilemma for a fire instructor arises with the realization that on Day One out of rookie school, any firefighter can be in a serious fire or emergency that will require instantaneous cue recognition and split-second decision making. How well a firefighter makes these decisions may mean the difference between life and death. There are several theories regarding how well the human brain operates in a sudden life-threatening crisis, but most acknowledge that chance favors the prepared mind. Therefore, we always emphasize that muscle memory in critical tasks such as SCBA emergencies must be second nature.

Providing relevant, realistic training is critical to the development of a well-trained firefighter. “Relevant” for the fire service means hands-on training under realistic conditions replicating the environments in which we do our work. Regarded as the best method, hands on mirrors the principle that experience is the best teacher. Nowhere has this belief been more appreciated and recognized than in the fire service.

But how do we prepare firefighters for today’s fire environment? Most commonly, we use live-fire training: the burning of class A combustibles in an acquired structure or a specially constructed burn facility. The rules of engagement for these live-fire exercises are spelled out in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions, known industrywide simply as NFPA 1403.

We employ live fire for recruits as well as veteran firefighters in a variety of ways, all of which are required to conform to NFPA 1403. Unfortunately, we all are aware of live-fire exercises that have been conducted in gross disregard of the consensus standard 1403, with predictably tragic results. It is no longer an excuse to say, “I did not know about 1403.” It is no longer acceptable to stray from its well-thought-out parameters.

The tragedy that is the backdrop for the institution of 1403 occurred in Boulder, Colorado, on January 26, 1982. Engineer William J. Duran and Firefighter Scott L. Smith died while participating in a training exercise at an acquired structure training fire. Eerily, this horror has been repeated in Milford, Lairdsville, Osceola, Miami, Altoona, and, most recently, Baltimore-each experienced a line-of-duty death (LODD) at a live-fire training evolution. These deaths force us to confront a painful question: Do these fatalities reflect an accurate picture of the total human cost of conducting live-fire training?

If we apply H.W. Heinrich’s Pyramid of Error theory, we can begin to understand that the NFPA count of 14 firefighters who lost their lives while participating in live-fire training exercises between 1990 and 2000 is the tip of the iceberg. Heinrich states for every fatality there are 15 serious injuries and 300 near misses. We know large numbers of near-miss live-fire training incidents that result in injured firefighters are just not being captured. Many of the injuries that result from live-fire training simply go unreported for a variety of reasons.

Many firefighters will tell you there is no such thing as a “training” fire in an acquired structure. Those firefighters are right: We can never afford to “play with fire,” just like our mothers told us. Absolute focus and clear intention to putting out the fire must be the universal purpose at every fire we attend, training or not. Even the very best live-fire trainers have had an acquired structure burn spiral out of control, requiring a third-alarm response to control the fire.

So, has the time come to outlaw live-fire training? The jury is still out on that decision. However, we believe what has made the U.S. fire service great is its ability to manage its choices and challenges locally. We recognize that realistic emergency training has one tremendous benefit: It can destroy the misplaced self-confidence that too many firefighters feel automatically endowed with by virtue of the uniform. Ignorance breeds overconfidence or, as Charles Darwin said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than it does knowledge.” The old adage “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” can be deadly when applied to firefighting.

When an educated, cautious attitude is applied to live-fire training, training objectives that focus on creating realistic mental models of fire behavior are specified. The goal is to provide an understanding of what constitutes a safe interior attack locally.

If you are instilling humility and respect for the dynamic and unpredictable nature of fire, then your training is enlightening and beneficial. But if you are showing firefighters that it is okay to attack a fire in an unventilated structure, with flame and hot fire gases rolling over their heads, then you must be stopped. It is completely unacceptable to give young firefighters unrealistic perceptions of the ability of their personal protective equipment to protect them from fire gas ignitions.

Fire Engineering supports the intent and content of NFPA 1403. We know that none of the instructors involved in live-fire training fatalities intended to cause these tragedies. In memoriam, we must question every bad outcome with an insatiable need to understand what happened and, hopefully, how we can recognize and prevent another LODD live-fire training death from ever happening again. Instructors, give your rookies a leg up on those inevitable Day One incidents by enforcing Rule One for live burns: 1403 or no fire!

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