Live Fire Training: Lessons Learned in New Jersey

BY TERENCE COLETTA

The U.S. Fire Service has experienced a num-ber of injuries and deaths over the years during live fire training. One such incident in New Jersey changed the way firefighters train. The trend over the past 15 years has been to build facilities that use simulators to provide heat and smoke for firefighter training. These systems are limited in producing the realism many believe is required for adequate training. With changes to codes and adoption of credible standards, nonsimulator live fire training can be conducted safely enough to minimize the risks involved to an acceptable level.

As a firefighter and an instructor, I am quite aware of the hazards involved with live fire training. The object is to create, as close as possible, the conditions of an uncontrolled fire while controlling it to minimize the hazards. Even with this balance, firefighters will be exposed to extremely harsh conditions in an attempt to familiarize them with the realities they will face. Human skin starts to burn at 124°F. Wood and paper ignite at 451°F. Left unchecked in a room, a wood fire can reach temperatures well above 1,000°F, and flashover will occur around 1,200°F. Structural firefighting turnout gear will degrade in a few seconds at the extreme temperatures in flashover conditions. Even at much lower temperatures, a firefighter’s body core temperature can easily rise above safe levels.

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1001, Standard for Firefighter Professional Qualifications,1 is the adopted standard for firefighters in the State of New Jersey. Individuals wishing to be firefighters and the training programs they take must meet the requirements in this document. Although NFPA 1001 does not mandate live fire training, it does require demonstration of certain skills that are difficult to conduct without fire:

Section 5.3.9 Conduct a search and rescue in a structure operating as a member of a team, given an assignment, obscured vision conditions, personal protective equipment, a flashlight, forcible entry tools, hoselines, and ladders when necessary, so that ladders are correctly placed when used, all assigned areas are searched, all victims are located and removed, team integrity is maintained, and team members’ safety—including respiratory protection—is not compromised. (1, p.9)

Section 5.3.10 Fire attack is another skill difficult to teach without real fire. These two activities are typically conducted with some form of live fire burning of class A fuels such as wood and hay or by simulators burning propane or natural gas. While both have associated hazards, the burning of class A fuels has resulted in training incidents with tragic consequences.

PARSIPPANY BUS TRAINING INCIDENT

The worst live fire training accident in New Jersey occurred in 1992 in Parsippany, Morris County. The Greystone Park Fire Department (GPFD) was conducting a Firefighter 1 course with 19 recruits from several area fire departments. Two officers from the GPFD taught the course. One of the officers was a state-certified fire instructor. There was no affiliation with the Morris County (NJ) Fire Academy (MCFA), located in the same township. On the day of the incident, the class was held with only one of the officers—the certified instructor—and 18 of the recruits. The purpose of the training that day was to familiarize the recruits with real fire conditions and “the proposed training would have the recruits perform search and rescue drills while inside an old school bus.”2

The 1976 International Harvester bus, donated by the Board of Education, had been on site and used by the local fire department for two years. The seats were removed, and steel plates were welded over the windows.

The day of the incident, the fuel load in the bus consisted of a foam cushioned couch, a hollow wood door, a five-gallon can containing a small amount of liquid fuel, and a partially burned truck tire. Wood soaked in kerosene was placed in three sections of 55-gallon drums that had been cut in half to create heat and smoke. Shredded paper was placed under the foam cushions on the couch, and a road flare was left under the cushions to ignite the fire. (2) The fire was allowed to burn for approximately 10 minutes before five students and the one instructor entered the bus.

Approximately 30 seconds to one minute after they entered the bus, a flashover occurred. The instructor and two students exited the bus immediately and were uninjured. Two other students were able to exit on their own but were injured. One student had to be removed from the bus and was severely injured.3

NJ DIVISION OF SAFETY REPORT

According to the New Jersey Division of Fire Safety report on the incident, no safety officer was assigned and there were insufficient instructors for the number of students. The only charged line was a ¾-inch booster line, and it was unstaffed. No emergency medical services were on site, and no standby suppression crew was designated. (3, p.6) A fire pumper from the local fire department was connected to a hydrant and supplied the booster line. The report identified numerous other items of concern, but those directly leading to injuries are the following:

  • Use of an inadequate facility not designed for firefighter training.
  • No protection hoseline.
  • No safety officer appointed.
  • Not enough certified instructors.
  • Excessive amount of fire load.
  • Inappropriate fuels.

    All of these could have been mitigated by adhering to NFPA 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions.4

    The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducts independent investigations of firefighter line-of-duty deaths through its Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program. A visit to the Web site at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/ will reveal that live fire training injuries and fatalities have a common thread, human error and noncompliance with NFPA 1403. A special report by the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), “Trends and Hazards in Firefighter Training,” concluded: “The majority of severe injuries over the last several years have involved incidents where NFPA 1403 was not adequately applied.”5

    The incident in Parsippany was a major catalyst for reform in New Jersey. The MCFA as well as the Bergen County (NJ) Fire Academy (BCFA) constructed new burn buildings for live fire training that uses propane simulators and artificial smoke generators. New Jersey State law now requires training facilities that wish to conduct live fire training to obtain a permit from the New Jersey Division of Fire Safety. To obtain the permit, a fixed training facility must be used along with certified instructors. Most importantly, NFPA 1403 must be adhered to.

    NFPA 1403

    NFPA 1403 provides all the necessary requirements for conducting live fire training in a safe manner. Facilities must meet minimum requirements to conduct training. The authority having jurisdiction must certify instructors. The authority in New Jersey is the New Jersey Division of Fire Safety. The type of fuel as well as the ignition agent are regulated.

    NFPA 1403 has chapters to cover all possible live fire training scenarios: Chapter 4, Acquired Structures; Chapter 5, Gas-Fired Live Fire Training Structures; Chapter 6, Non-Gas-Fired Live Fire Training Structures; Chapter 7, Exterior Props; and Chapter 8, Exterior Class B Fires. All theses chapters have requirements specific to the type of training and requirements common to all.

    Section 5.4.1, for example, states: “A safety officer shall be appointed for all live fire training evolutions.” (4, p.10)

    Other significant requirements common to these chapters include Section 5.5.2: “The participating student-to-instructor ratio shall not be greater than 5 to 1” (4, p.11) and Section 5.4.7.2: “Backup lines shall be provided to ensure protection for personnel on training attack lines.” (4, p.10) NFPA 1403 even provides a sample live fire evolution checklist that instructors can use to verify that all requirements have been met. These are substantial requirements that would have prevented the injuries at the incident in Parsippany. Unfortunately, even though NFPA 1403 existed at that time, New Jersey did not mandate its use.

    SIMULATORS

    Even with the adoption of NFPA 1403, fire academies such as those in Morris County and Bergen County have stopped almost all nonsimulator live fire training, opting instead for propane simulators. These simulators burn propane much like a kitchen stove. Separate machines are used to generate smoke. There is an upside to simulators. Heat can be easily controlled. Instructors have the option of not using the smoke-generating machines, thus allowing a better view of the students to determine if the proper technique is being used. There is no cleanup involved, leaving more time for training. When simulators are working properly, there is no downtime between burns. Students can be instructed on basic techniques and evaluated quickly. Simulators are efficient and environmentally friendly.

    The downside to simulators is that the smoke is white and hard to maintain at levels needed to obscured vision, as specified for training in NFPA 1001. Class A fuels cannot be used in these facilities to make smoke, as the soot interferes with the sensors needed to run the simulators safely. The simulators are sophisticated computer-controlled machines with numerous components that can break or go wrong. When something is wrong, the system will not operate. Usually a trained technician is required for repairs and maintenance. Further, there are issues with outcomes associated with simulator training.

    The following are excerpted from the USFA report mentioned above:

    In several cases, training in simulators has led to learned behaviors, which have actually had an adverse impact on fireground safety and resulted in injuries. One criticism of fire simulators is that they fail to teach firefighters to react to the fire conditions and do not address the importance of evaluating the type and construction of the building on fire and effectively reading smoke conditions. (5, p.13)
    Interviewees related instances where inexperienced firefighters failed to fully extinguish fires from the habit of just knocking them down as in training fires. (5, p.13)
    Recruits have been seriously burned from standing up to observe the heat levels. They do not have the tactical experience to discern the demarcation line of dangerous levels of high heat. Injuries have also occurred from new firefighters standing up in a panic situation and being seriously burned. They have not encountered similar high heat conditions in a training situation and may not recognize the critical heat situations. (5, p.13)

    Clearly simulators alone do not provide adequate training in the area of fire behavior. One form of live fire simulator training that does not use a flammable gas is flashover container training. It produces a carefully controlled flashover by limiting the amount of fuel and size of the space. The fuel consists of six sheets of particleboard and a small amount of cut wood pallets in a 55-gallon drum. The space is a modified overseas shipping container. This combination offers very consistent and controllable conditions. The results of this training have been positive.

    According to the above USFA report,

    Flashover Simulators. Some fire departments have utilized the flashover simulator devices originally developed in Europe to give firefighters first-hand experience in observing flashover conditions. The training allows firefighters to watch how fire conditions build towards flashover and emphasizes how flashover can be delayed or prevented with proper application of hose streams. These simulators are credited with providing firefighters survival skills and tactics when they are caught in impending flashover conditions.
    No serious injuries have been reported from the use of these flashover simulators, although many firefighters received minor steam burns due to damp gear from sweat after multiple training evolutions. (5, p.14)

    Unfortunately, Bergen County does not offer this valuable training to Firefighter 1 students.

    The Rockland County (NY) Fire Academy is the closest academy to the BCFA that still has a conventional burn building using Class A fuel. My department schedules live fire training there a few times a year. On one occasion, a firefighter from my company, who had been in the department for more than a year and completed firefighter I, II, and III at the BCFA, came to me after doing a search of the burn building’s first floor and said, “That’s the first time I’ve been in real fire. I almost panicked.” I would characterize the conditions as moderate heat and smoke. The firefighter is my sister. This one occasion has made the training firefighters receive very personal for me. I consider it fortunate that circumstances did not cause her to enter a real fire under nontraining conditions before that time. The outcome could have been different. I truly believe firefighters should be exposed to the conditions of real fire during their initial training, before they can be exposed in uncontrolled conditions.

    The USFA report states

    Burn buildings and other training technologies cannot substitute for the experience gained in “real” structure fires and live fire evolutions. Since fire behavior and fire attack methods can vary between a burn building and a “real” structure, firefighters need to practice in both. Important skills, such as overhaul, cannot be easily replicated in burn buildings. It is increasingly important that firefighters receive training in fire behavior and extinguishment methods for different types of building construction. (5, p.17)

    Fire instructors must consistently reinforce to students the differences in conditions between simulators and uncontrolled fire. Proper techniques must be reinforced at all times. Nonsimulated live fire training such as flashover training and a conventional burn building using Class A fuel should be incorporated into Firefighter I programs when available. Senior members and instructors in the fire service should start a dialog with administrators and elected officials who have oversight of their local fire academy. We must convince them this training is critical for our firefighters and needs to be supported with adequate funds and regulations.

    With qualified instructors, the use of NFPA 1403, and facilities under permit for live fire training—all mandated with state oversight—live fire training can be conducted safely. Simulation and the use of class A fuels can and should be used to provide the best possible training for our firefighters. Strict adherence to NFPA 1403 will minimize the risks to acceptable levels.

    References

    1. National Fire Protection Association. (2008) NFPA 1001, Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications. NFPA 1 Batterymarch Park, P.O. Box 9101 Quincy, MA 02269-9101.

    2. McArthur, Kevin. “Live Fire Training Revisited: Parsippany, New Jersey; 1992.” Fire & Rescue Journal, a publication of the North Carolina Department of Insurance. Office of State Fire Marshal, Spring 2008,1.

    3. New Jersey Division of Fire Safety. “Firefighter Injury Report 1050, Edwards Road, Parsippany-Troy Hills, New Jersey, December 6, 1992.” New Jersey Division of Fire Safety, Trenton, NJ, June 1993, 7.

    4. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). (2007) NFPA 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions Technical Committee on Fire Service Training. NFPA 1 Batterymarch Park, P.O. Box 9101 Quincy, MA 02269-9101.

    5. Thiel, A., Stern, J., Kimball, J., Hankin, N. “Trends and Hazards in Firefighter Training – Special Report.” Federal Emergency Management Association’s U.S. Fire Administration, Emmitsburg, MD, May 2003, 12.

    TERENCE COLETTA has been the fire protection subcode official for the Township of Parsippany-Troy Hills, New Jersey, for the past 12 years. He has 24 years of experience as a building and fire inspector in various New Jersey municipalities. He is a per-diem senior fire instructor at the Bergen County (NJ) Law and Public Safety Institute, where he has served for 15 years. He is a life member and former assistant chief with the Mahwah (NJ) Fire Department, where he has served for more than 30 years. He is a firefighter with Parsippany (NJ) Fire Department District 5. He is a New Jersey-certified EMT and recently retired from the Navy Reserve as a senior chief hospital corpsman after 28 years of service.

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