Realistic Live-Burn Training You Can Afford


According to the late Francis L. Brannigan, “Live firefighter training may inadvertently be delivering the wrong message.” On the fireground, when all else fails and success or survival is measured in seconds and inches, we all fall back on our experience and what we learned in training to pull us through. Not much in today’s fire service pays bigger dividends than intense, realistic fire training. However, with restrictions on live burning in acquired structures and the limitations of many gas-fueled and Class A fire props, how does a department provide safe and realistic training for its firefighters? After you look at some of the more popular live-fire options, keep an open mind for another option you probably have not considered.


Live-fire training is generally conducted in specially designed low-tech props, high-tech state-of-the-art fire training facilities, or acquired structures pending demolition, such as homes and commercial buildings.

Low-Tech Props

These props are generally constructed in one of the following ways. The first includes buildings constructed of reinforced concrete or other masonry products. They are built in hopes of making the building formidable enough to withstand repeated small fires. Large fires and rapid cooling during extinguishment have rendered many such structures unsafe and condemned because the structural integrity has been compromised. Without a kiln-like alloy of reflective synthetic aggregates, these buildings cannot withstand repeated realistic fires. Because of this destruction, these buildings may also be lined with large high-temperature tiles, which are attached to the walls and ceilings. These tiles are expensive and fragile and require a high level of maintenance. Many of these types of applications show large cracks after just a short time in use. In recent burn building remodels, the cost of constructing a single 200-square-foot room built in this fashion was astronomical.

When fires are built in these structures, they mimic a fire resistive construction type of environment because of the structure’s retaining heat. If this is what you are trying to demonstrate, that is okay; however, most of the time, we try to simulate other types of structures as well in these concrete monoliths.

Figure 1. Building Frame
Provide gypsum board around and outside of openings.

To generate real fire development and interior conditions, one burn per floor per day is all that you can complete. Because the building retains so much heat, the normal heat flux and fire development you are trying to simulate is skewed for hours.

The second type of low-tech prop is made of heavy-gauge metal, such as shipping containers, and is intended for repeated short-duration Class A fires. These containers are just that, shipping containers. They are made to ship goods in and were not designed for live-fire training. These containers can create very impressive fire conditions, but are they realistic in showing structural fire development or for honing fire tactical skills? The obvious answer is no. Don’t misunderstand me. I have been driven out of some of these props because of advanced fire conditions. I have seen melted helmets and have been with others who sustained minor burns, but the demonstration was just that—a demonstration. This was not tactical training aimed at developing best practices regarding fire attack. It was not an environment that provided realistic structure fire conditions aimed at providing new and seasoned firefighters with varying conditions they need to be aware of to survive the firefight of today.

Most of our experiences in these props were single-dimension lessons, albeit impressive; it is still a lesson in the chemistry of fire behavior in a sealed metal container. If we realize this fact and use these props as a means of demonstration, that is okay, but they do not represent today’s fire conditions. After these props are no longer safe to use for burns, we are left with little more than structures that have a predictable floor plan in which to create a smoke-filled environment. This is not realistic fire training in any sense of the word.

High-Tech Props

High-tech training props are fueled by propane or natural gas. Some of these buildings or trailers cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. These props can create a hot, somewhat visually impaired environment where you can apply water without too much destruction to the structure. However, these structures cannot create real interior fire conditions through the various stages of development and extinguishment.

We were recently training a department in one of these trailers, which cost nearly one million dollars. Everything was going well, smoke development was progressing, and fire was roaring and then it shut itself down because of the increased heat. Besides the fact that this prop is small and very predictable in how it will behave in a fire as well as where the partitions and safe zones are, it is unrealistic to expect it to provide the sustained conditions of today’s interior fires.

Figure 2. Floor Plan

The structural fires we encounter today create much more energy in the forms of heat and volatile products of combustion than fires of just a few years ago. This dramatic increase in fire load also has a much more rapid energy release rate, causing extreme fire behavior to occur more quickly and with more dramatic results. These worsening fire conditions are also occurring in lightweight buildings that are not able to withstand the firefight necessary to bring them under the threshold of control.

Acquired structures slated for demolition probably offer the most real-life overall fire experience for training. That being said, most of these buildings cannot be brought into compliance with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolution, 2007 edition. We have all heard of recent national events where these standards were not strictly adhered to and the results were firefighter fatalities and injuries.

If you are going to conduct a burn in these buildings, you must strictly adhere to NFPA 1403. We have been involved in dozens of acquired structure burns where the instructors conducting the burn attempted to follow the standard. One such class was advertised as a live-fire class. When we arrived at the acquired structure they were going to burn in, it was obvious that the instructors had made a veiled attempt to meet the standard. It was equally obvious that the conditions fell short of live interior fire training safety parameters. Despite pressure from the director of state training, we did not burn. Last year, we were burning in an acquired structure we had spent hundreds of hours attempting to make compliant with NFPA 1403. Even after all of our work, unpredictable fire behavior was apparent during the first fire. The previous owner had plastered over medium-density fiberboard in one area of the ceiling, giving it the appearance of plaster or drywall. When this material was heated, it became hot; the pyrolysis of the material caused flames to spread above and behind the attack crew. Luckily, other NFPA 1403 precautions were in place, and the backup crew quickly extinguished the rapidly spreading fire.

The NFPA is only one organization involved when we use an acquired structure. Environmental agencies with statutory power—including local, county and state—also have asbestos, methamphetamine contamination, and other issues with which they are concerned. We must meet the conditions that make the burn compliant. Environmental concerns related to the open burning process also complicate the approval process for using these structures.


How can a department create a safe and realistic live-fire training experience for its firefighters? The ideal live-fire training structure should be able to withstand multiple burns in a day and throughout several days of intense training. It should provide crews with the realistic conditions to develop best practices when making fireground decisions. It should be able to withstand enough energy in the forms of heat and smoke to create an experience close to what firefighters are likely to encounter when the tones sound. It should be able to provide a variety of fire scenarios. It should be affordable for smaller departments and be constructed of materials that are as economical as possible. It must comply with all applicable NFPA standards. Finally, it should be a structure, not a prop, and should be available to accommodate a busy training schedule.


We have trained firefighters all over the country, as well as internationally. We have seen every version of the above-mentioned fire props and seldom were impressed with any of them. Therefore, we built our own 768-square-foot, single-family dwelling, which we named “Build & Burn.” Born out of frustration because of the lack of realistic and safe fire training facilities, we built the first prop in a design/build fashion. Our frustration gave way to a fire training structure that is not only very affordable but also customizable and the most realistic live-fire training prop with which we have worked.

This structure has undergone several fireground-proven improvements since it was first built. We have developed plans and easy-to-follow instructions for departments that would like to build their own live fire-training prop. You can build your own reusable/disposable 768-square-foot, five-room, single-story structure for under $4,000 (see Table 1). With its lining of two layers of 5⁄8-inch gypsum board, also referred to Type X Gypsum Wall Board, with overlapping joints, the building will withstand repeated Class A fires and is reusable and disposable. The building is not recognized by NFPA 1402, Guide to Building Fire Service Training Centers, 2007 edition, because it is not a permanent training center. It is also not recognized by NFPA 1403, yet it meets the safety intent of this standard. All fires conducted in this building have been built in accordance with NFPA 1403. It took only 16 hours to construct our first structure. It was subjected to 36 interior fires before it was dismantled and the wall panels were stored for future use. When it was rebuilt, improvements in the design made it able to withstand 45 live burns. The second time, the previously built wall panels were reassembled, and the structure was framed in less than four hours.

The structure is designed to be safe; it is a reasonably priced firefighter training structure that can support multiple Class A burns. The realistic fire behavior achieved with the Build & Burn Structure is ideally suited to training firefighters in positive-pressure attack and other interior fire operations. This structure simulates a simple, single-family dwelling.

This training structure provided all members of the department with an opportunity to be safely involved in several realistic fire attack scenarios, including single- and multiple-room fire situations. Without a doubt, this experience was an invaluable addition to the firefighters’ training. Many firefighters will operate in the interior on more fires during the use of this building than they would in a year or more on the floor.

The Build & Burn Structure’s framework is constructed in a modular fashion from 20 prebuilt wall panels, each 8 feet wide × 8 feet, 3 inches high, using five different patterns to make it easy to assemble. Depending on fire intensity, weather, and other factors, the structure can sustain in the neighborhood of 40 hours before the gypsum board must be removed from the framework and discarded. In a properly constructed Build & Burn Structure, the wall panels and ceiling framework can then be disassembled, stored, and reused multiple times.

Following are instructions to build all panels and the beam. (All panels are 8 feet wide × 8 feet, 3 inches high.)

  • Panel #1 (10 each), no openings, framed with studs located on 24-inch centers.
  • Panel #2 (1 each), one window 6 feet wide × 4 feet tall in the center of the panel.
  • Panel #3 (2 each), one door opening measuring 36 inches wide × 7 feet tall on the left-hand side of the panel. Leave the bottom plate intact across the door opening.
  • Panel #4 (5 each), one window 4 feet wide × 4 feet tall in the center of the panel, with the top of the window seven feet from the ground.
  • Panel #5 (2 each), no openings, partition anchor stud fastened to the center of the panel perpendicular to the wall studs, to one side of the top and bottom plate. This is used to attach the interior center bearing partition.
  • Box Beam (1 each), four 8-foot 2 × 4s nailed together to make a temporary beam.


Each fire package is built using five clean, noncontaminated pallets. The first two pallets are leaned against each other, forming a triangle or A-frame. The next two pallets are leaned against the open ends of the first two pallets; the fifth pallet is placed across the top of these pallets. This configuration will hold itself in place most of the time. Place cellulose or another NFPA 1403-compliant fibrous combustible Class A material throughout the pallets. Cellulose is made of fibrous wood product that ignites readily and creates a tremendous amount of initial heat. Before training begins, each room can have one of these fire packages built in the center of the room, except the large front room, which will accommodate two such fire packages. These fire packages will generate enough fire to create a flashover and a tremendous amount of products of combustion. Pull off the doorway coverings, and set them aside for the fire attack; the window coverings can be pulled off for horizontal ventilation. This structure is not strong enough to attempt any roof operations.

Although the building will not hold a high snow load, the tarp that covers the structure after it is built has withstood up to six inches of snow and several rainstorms. It is important that you remove the tarp before using the structure for a live fire.


In today’s fire service, we do not have the time to wait until our firefighters have enough on-the-job training to become good fire practitioners and understand the fires and environments in which they are operating. Today’s leaders must not only define the reality of fire; we have an obligation to prepare those who follow us to deal with it.

KRISS GARCIA has served in the fire service for 25 years and is a battalion chief with the Salt Lake City (UT) Fire Department and chief of the Tooele City Volunteer Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in public administration, is a licensed engineering contractor and paramedic, and is an NFA instructor. He serves on the NFPA 1021 committee and is a voting member of the Air Movement Control Association.

REINHARD KAUFFMANN is a battalion chief for the Salt Lake City (UT) Fire Department, where he has served for more than 30 years. During his career, he has held the positions of paramedic, interim fire chief, and airport fire chief. He has a bachelor’s degree in microbiology. His interest in positive pressure for firefighting began in 1989. He is also the coauthor, with Battalion Chief Kriss Garcia, of Positive Pressure Attack for Firefighting & Ventilation (Fire Engineering, 2006)and numerous magazine articles.

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