BY MATTHEW VANGIESEN
Most of us have attended or participated in a training fire in an acquired structure. Some have gone well; others have left a lot to be desired. A few of them even provided us with a “war” story that likely can be classified as a close call. North Whidbey (WA) Fire and Rescue was fortunate to have three structures donated for live-fire training in the past year. Although we have not had any “incidents” with live-fire training in the past, we, nevertheless, felt that making our burns compliant with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions, was a priority. We wanted to provide highly realistic live-fire training for our personnel without sacrificing safety. After reviewing applicable state and local laws and the NFPA standards, we initiated a four-part system for developing an NFPA 1403-compliant live-fire program. The system has four components: Inspection, Planning, Prepping, and Burn.
Preparation for training in an acquired structure should start with a detailed inspection. This phase covers obtaining the necessary permits, looking for the presence of asbestos and properly removing any that may be found, and inspecting the acquired building. The homeowner must be able to prove that he owns the structure and has cancelled any insurance coverage for the structure. The state and locality may require permits or documentation in some areas.
When inspecting the structure, we determine what type of training, if any, for which it would be appropriate. In some cases, the buildings may be deemed unsafe for entry and can be used for burns involving only exterior operations. Some structures cannot be burned because of environmental issues. If a structure is not feasible for burning evolutions, consider that it can be used for other training, such as forcible entry and ventilation drills. It can still provide valuable training.
We prepare a quality and detailed checklist for each structure to ensure that we do not forget any details that can affect the outcome of our training. I developed my checklist by closely examining NFPA 1403, highlighting the areas specific to acquired structures. NFPA 1403 lists items that should be checked during the preburn inspection. The checklist becomes part of my written operation plan, or Operation Order (Op Order).
The planning phase usually takes the most time (unless excessive preparation work is needed). At this time, we combine the information collected during the inspection phase with items such as training needs and personnel available to draft an operation plan.
The Op Order includes a detailed explanation of the training planned, specific hazards that were noted, operations to be excluded (i.e., no roof ops), training objectives, and so on. For structures with multiple training dates, we draft a separate, less detailed written plan using the same NFPA 1403 checklist. In essence, the Op Order is the master plan detailing the overall objectives. This plan should be all-inclusive, whereas the shorter plans detail the specific training and objectives for that particular evolution or training day/night. The written plan for the Op Order could read something like this:
- Objectives for the training burn of this structure will be to demonstrate and evaluate the effectiveness of a piercing type nozzle. The nozzle will be tested on attic fires and on small room-and-content fires. Water and compressed air foam systems will be evaluated with the nozzle. At the conclusion of nozzle testing, if the structure is still deemed safe for interior live-fire training, room-and-content fires will be lit in the bath and kitchen areas for the purpose of confinement and extinguishment training for hose teams.
- Prior to live-fire testing, the structure will be used for ventilation training. Smoke pots comprised of 55-gallon drums will be used to contain a fire of hay/straw for the generation of smoke. Ventilation will be achieved via positive-pressure ventilation and hydraulic ventilation.
- NOTE: The safety of the roof has not been determined for firefighter access. At this time, no firefighters shall go on the roof. If roof operations are desired, a full inspection of the roof structure will be required and the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) must approve any roof operations.
- At all times, a minimum of two members of the ignition team will be present in the structure during live-fire evolutions.
- CAUTION should be taken when working with fire above firefighters. The presence of live fire in the attic presents a unique hazard and should be monitored at all times by a safety team with a charged line of adequate size for the fire load. The maximum fire load for room-and-content fires shall not exceed five (5) pallets per fire.
- Per NFPA 1142, Standard on Water Supplies for Suburban and Rural Fire Fighting, 2007 edition, minimum water required on-scene is 2,900 gallons, and the needed flow rate is 250 gallons per minute. Two engines will be used with both apparatus supplied from portable ponds via draft. Booster tanks should be held in reserve and kept full. Two tenders will be in service in reserve and used to maintain portable pond supply. The two engines will cross-connect supply lines to each other via 2½-inch supply lines (based on staging maps; hoselays will be <150 feet), and these lines shall be charged and tested. Each engine will charge one 2½-inch line that will be gated to two 1¾-inch attack lines (shown on staging diagram).
Write the Op Order with enough detail to ensure that the strategies and objectives of the training will be clear to all participants; however, allow some flexibility. Remember, live-fire training in an acquired structure is a high-risk operation, even when well planned.
List on the Op Order the participants and their responsibilities. Including the major players and their responsibilities on the checklist would be helpful in solidifying what is expected of each person. Research state and local laws regarding personal qualifications; some areas now require a certification before an individual is considered qualified to fill certain roles. Specifically, in Florida, an instructor must be certified as a live-fire instructor. Many other states and departments are now demanding similar training and qualifications. If your department does not require specific qualifications, the AHJ should appoint the positions.
• The Authority Having Jurisdiction. The chief of the department will be the AHJ for most small departments. The AHJ has overall responsible for the entire evolution, from procuring the structure to handing the remnants back to the owner. The AHJ should be signing off on the burn just prior to ignition/training and again at the completion of the burn.
• Instructor-in-Charge. The overall responsibility for planning and executing the evolutions lie with the instructor-in-charge. A chief officer should fill this position. Chief officers’ fireground experience, knowledge of fire behavior, and competency in the incident command system are absolutely essential to a successful training evolution. Assigning a junior officer or a firefighter as an aide is recommended; it can be a great learning experience. We have had captains and firefighters run evolutions as an incident commander for training purposes, but the instructor-in-charge is always “hands-on” with them—coaching, mentoring, and ready to intervene if needed.
• Safety Officer. The AHJ appoints the safety officer, who is charged with maintaining a safe working environment at all live-fire training evolutions. The safety officer’s main responsibility is to prevent unsafe acts and to eliminate unsafe conditions. This officer should monitor all aspects of the training, including being proactive in the inspection, planning, and prep phases.
• Instructors. The AHJ designates them to provide training and instruction to assigned students. Keep in mind the instructor-to-student ratio. We like to keep a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio, or a company-size team.
• Ignition Officer. The AHJ or IC appoints the ignition officer. This person is in charge of the ignition and control of the materials burned for live-fire training. We have had great success by assigning an ignition team (under the ignition officer). The size of the team depends on the size of the structure and the type of training. Using a team instead of an individual allows for continuous monitoring of interior fire conditions. Ignition team members can rotate for rehab without having to interrupt the training evolutions. Interior safety is one of the main responsibilities of our ignition team.
Don’t forget to address any issues that need attention from the inspection phase. If something like the “front steps need retreading” was noted during the inspection, it should be written in the plan and assigned to an individual or group for action during the prep phase.
The prep phase can be long or short, depending on the condition of the structure and the desired training. Prepping is usually one of three types:
• Prep to repair deficiencies found during inspection that create safety concerns or hazards. Repairs that may need to be made can include covering holes in walls/ceilings, repairing stairs, removing large windows or glass, covering window/door openings, removing low-density combustible fiberboard interior finishes, and reinforcing structural members. (Note: Experience has shown that if a window opening is covered with sheeting, it should be lightly attached to the exterior of the opening. This will ensure that the covering can be removed quickly and with minimal effort in an emergency/bailout).
• Prep to enhance the structure for planned burns or training. When looking for maximum fire training and extended burn times, walls and ceilings of burn rooms can be prepped with wallboard to delay fire exposure into walls and extension into voids and adjacent rooms.
• Prep to repair damage created during previous training evolutions. Repair any openings made in roofs or walls during previous evolutions such as ventilation or forcible opening drills. If rooms have been used for live fire and are deemed safe for more burning, addition prep may extend burn times.
If your department operates in rural areas, review NFPA 1142. You will need to establish water supplies and flow rates based on the formulas and criteria found in this standard and include them in your plan. A large portion of the prepping time can be consumed by establishing adequate water supplies and flow rates. Keep in mind the number of personnel needed to move large volumes of water safely and continuously.
Preincident briefing is a part of the prepping that is sometimes overlooked, but it is critical to the burn day operations. We try to brief within a week, but not more than a week, from the burn date. The briefing includes reviewing assignments for personnel and apparatus, structure layout (include exits), property layout, planned routes for hoseline deployment, and routes for water shuttle. Read through the written plan. Answer any questions. We also use this time to confirm student/participant attendance. A firm attendance count helps set up company rotations and in planning for refreshments for the training. We have had to reschedule training burns because we did not have enough participants to safely conduct the evolutions.
The big day is here. Start with a complete review of the Op Order. Was anything missed? Start early to establish the water supply; make sure it works! Have personnel/apparatus arrive at staggered times to prevent bottlenecks and having too many vehicles in too little space. Part of the planning phase should have included staging for apparatus not in use.
When the apparatus are staged and all participants are checked in by personnel, start the briefing. Read the written plan. Explain it and the expected outcome. Cover contingency plans and emergency procedures. Demonstrate the “abandon structure signal,” and show the meeting point. Ensure that all participants are familiar with the operation layout (command post, staffing, and rehab) and reinforce the importance of accountability. The instructor-in-charge typically runs our briefings; the ignition officer and safety officer provide input. After the briefing, have all participants do a final walk-through of the structure. All participants must be familiar with all exits and the layouts, including the planned fire locations.
Once the briefing has been completed, charge and test all hoselines. Have the AHJ, safety officer, instructor-in-charge, and any others needed sign the Op Order, signifying that it is okay to burn. Our checks and balances are set so the ignition officer does not light any fire until the safety officer and instructor-in-charge give the go ahead face-to-face.
Once the fire is lit, stick to the plan. If a deviation is needed for any reason, stop the evolutions, extinguish the fire, and then reassess the plans and goals. Keep in mind that the expected outcome of the training is that the house burns. There is absolutely no benefit that warrants any injury or risk from saving the structure. Let it burn.
The overall goal is to provide realistic training in the most controlled environment possible for an acquired structure. Everything the ignition team and instructors do should be calculated and have anticipated results. If the results or fire behavior deviate from the plan or expected outcome, stop. Then regroup, rethink, adjust, and proceed.
The initial undertaking of making an acquired structure training burn NFPA compliant can seem a bit daunting at first, but the process goes smoothly and compliance can be achieved rather easily. Each time you burn, continue improving and updating your process, but be careful not to digress from acceptable guidelines. Follow NFPA 1403, and make certain your team is qualified and competent. Many of the problems encountered during live-fire training have been caused by human error or judgment, not the process, and could have been avoided. Although not perfect, NFPA 1403 is the standard for live-fire evolutions. If it is observed, it can help identify and prevent many of the hazards associated with live-fire training. Remember, your hard work on the front end will help ensure a safe and successful training evolution.
MATTHEW VANGIESEN is a captain on 26 Engine in North Whidbey (WA) Fire & Rescue, where he has served since 2001. He has assisted with training for the past two years and has planned the past four acquired structure training burns. He began his fire service career with the Kane (PA) Volunteer Fire Department in the early 1990s. Previously, he served six years in the U.S. Navy.