By Lauren Keyson
Interview with John Salka, Battalion Chief, Fire Department of New York
If your house is made of concrete and decorated with neatly stacked pallets, then propane burn house training is just fine. But you would still get unreal fire conditions, including excessive heat that is so intense it could melt a helmet and a ceiling that would not catch fire. And does every house fire start in the exact same corner each and every time? And to top it off, you have to consider the part environmental concerns play in the training equation.
John Salka, Fire Department of New York (FDNY) 18th battalion chief, has conducted both live training and simulated fire training in his 23 years in the fire service, and he has much to say about the subject. But first, he gives us a quick overview of the three types of training:
- Totally simulated training occurs in a burn building and uses electronically controlled propane-fueled flames and fake smoke. “It’s the most modern, high-tech fire training.”
- Half live fire training is the old standard that goes back 30 years. The burn building is totally fire resistive and is constructed entirely of a specially poured concrete that is resistant to fire. An actual fire is built inside. “In the old days, we used hay, wood pallets, even furniture-things like that.”
- Live fire training uses an acquired structure, an actual abandoned building that is prepared according to National Fire Protection Association standards. “There’s a lot of preparation that goes into it. It’s a lot safer than seeing a fire and going in to put it out.”
Lauren Keyson, Fire Engineering: Is the quality of training under these different scenarios markedly different?
JOHN SALKA, FDNY: All three methods do seem the same and would provide effective training. You sometimes do get some training in all three levels. The least effective is the propane-fueled fire with simulated smoke. The problem is these burn buildings are entirely fire resistive and are constructed of concrete. Some are so technical that they have devices to measure the amount of water put on the fire. The equipment measures the amount of water sprayed, and it will automatically diminish the flames. It’s not effective because you are not getting fire spread, because the fire doesn’t spread-it just gets larger and smaller at that one location.
There are also some very high-tech simulators that may allow flames to roll over your head, but you have the fake smoke that actually ends up hugging the floor because the heat from the propane-fueled fire rises high in the room, displaces the fake smoke, and pushes it down to the floor. The least visibility is at the floor instead of up higher, which is the opposite of a real fire. It’s just not real. It’s so fake that it doesn’t even give you the impression, even with the limited sight of the mask and facepiece, of anything real.
LK: What do you really think about burn buildings?
JS: They are so terrible that when you go in the concrete building, all you see is a large open room, 20 2 20 or 30 2 30 feet, maybe two stories tall. You open the door and even though the outside of the building resembles a peaked roof house, garage, or other structure, you go inside, and it’s just a big open room. It’s not like your house where you have doorways and partitions. Thirty feet away in the corner, you see where the fire is, which is where they have built it every time for the past 100 fires. You never have to look for the fire. Every other fire I went to, you had to search for the fire-pop open doors, move around, make an examination. It takes time.
As instructors, we bring these new probies and have them lie down on the floor and look across-there’s the fire. They look at how the fire develops, how the smoke comes down. If you stay there long enough, the fire goes out. If you have enough air and you should fall asleep, you’d wake up and the room would be cold. That doesn’t happen at real fires. The real fire just gets bigger and bigger, until you get it. And if you don’t get it, it gets you and comes after you and takes that room and the next room and the next room.
In a burn building, the fire just sits in the corner and burns. The fire is not traveling over your head as it would in a real room. The fire would be over your head, and you wouldn’t even realize it. All of a sudden, you see orange above your head. And the ceiling is flammable-it’s not flammable in a burn building.
Another major drawback of the burn building is that it gets so hot in there that the damn helmet could melt off your head. That would never happen in a real fire unless you were three seconds away from being burned. The heat generated in a burn building is so artificially high for the equipment. I think we’re teaching firefighters to get used to temperatures higher than they should ever have to tolerate-temperatures they should not experience because firefighters should be out of the area if they felt temperatures rising that high.
In a burn building, the ceiling doesn’t fall down, you don’t bang into furniture, you don’t have doorways to crawl through, a step never fails under your feet, and you don’t knock over tables. It’s just a big empty room. The burn building is safe; it’s better than nothing.
LK: Could you envision a balanced approach to training using the simulators and smoke house evolutions?
JS: Absolutely. A training officer in Middletown, New Jersey, took a conventional burn building and modified it. He lined some of the walls and ceilings with particleboard and burnable wood and put a couple of pieces of furniture in there instead of just stacking a pile of wood pallets. Now when students come in, the fire is racing across the ceiling over their heads, the fire is on a couch or a chair, and it’s spreading to a piece of carpeting under the piece of furniture-it’s a little more realistic. So right off the bat, you can take a burn building and create realistic conditions, but you have to be creative. You would have the expense of the supplies and you would have to get the wooden panels to patch into the ceiling and the floor. But you could make something much more realistic than just this concrete burn building with wood pallets and a bale of hay, the two most often used fuel sources.
LK: So you advocate spending the extra time and the money to modify simulated fire equipment and situations?
JS: It would be hard to modify the propane simulators because they are very high tech. They are designed to be used the way they’re specifically equipped. You could start with a foam rubber mattress or stuffed couches or wood tables inside. You could certainly take the traditional standard burn building and modify it by adding some pallets on the walls and ceilings that are burnable. You can use them over and over. A training team could go in there and sweep the ceiling and put out the fire. If you were to light another fire there an hour later, the heat from that fire would probably quickly dry that water. Then you could reignite the fire; it could be reused many times before it has to be replaced. You would have much more realistic conditions. It’s just the work of getting the old furniture, burning it, and getting rid of the debris instead of these neatly stacked piles of pallets and hay, which are much more easily stored, carried, lit up, and cleaned up. A lot of times, it’s about the convenience of the facility or the training personnel instead of the quality of the training.
LK: Can you give me an example of this type of training?
JS: New York State Academy of Fire Science, where I teach, probably has one of the oldest burn buildings of which I am aware. The facility combines firefighting training with arson investigation training. So the staff will go in there and put in wallboard, a ceiling, and windows that have glass (not just metal shutters) in a room, paint the room, put a carpet on the floor, and furnish the room with a couch, a chair, a bed, and curtains on the windows. The staff lights a fire using an arson device; the fire develops as it would in a room in a residential structure. The fire training team comes in to extinguish the fire. After the fire crews extinguish the fire, the arson personnel arrive and look at this “actual room” to try to determine how the fire was set.
But certainly, securely fastening some kind of wooden sheathing that will burn on the walls and ceiling simulates fire spreading overhead, which is what happens in a real fire-it’s one of the dangers of the fire.
My problem with concrete burn buildings is we’re teaching almost the exact opposite of what happens in a real fire. It gets so hot in there that you cannot stand it. If there’s one square inch of your skin exposed, you’ll get a little blister there. It doesn’t happen in a real fire. It never gets that hot; if it does, you’re in the wrong place and you need to get out. Nothing ever hits firefighters in the head or falls off the shelf in a concrete burn building. A piece of ceiling never falls down and knocks off their helmets; they never fall through a step on a stairway or break through a railing on a handrail going down a stairway. So when these things happen in an actual fire, they’re very surprised.
The fire never spreads over their heads in a burn building either, which will happen in a minute if you’re in a real fire, if you don’t put out the fire and you’re in the same room with it. They never have to crawl around, bump into furniture, and find the fire. As I pointed out, the fire is obvious when you enter the room in the burn building.
A burn building teaches you the exact opposite of all the real important things you need to do in a fire. So not only is it not good training, it’s setting you backward. The only thing it’s doing that’s really valid is having firefighters experience heat and flame. But you could do that at a campfire.
LK: So basically, this column is not so much advocating live fire training, but advocating balanced fire training.
JS: There’s a lot of fire training going on, but it’s got to be realistic, it’s got to be practical, it’s got to be teaching the right lessons. You can’t just put these firefighters in burn buildings and say, “Now you’ve got six fires under your belt.”
At seminars I ask, “Who has been in a live fire in a burn building?” A million hands go up. I then give them the whole spiel I just gave you. I tell them, “You’re really doing firefighters an injustice by giving them only burn building training-unless, of course, all the houses in your town are all made of concrete and the furniture is pallets and bales of hay. If that’s what all the houses in your town are, then you are ready to fight all those fires. But if you have regular houses in your town and you train in a burn building, you are not ready for a regular house fire.”
LK: Are propane burn buildings the standard?
JS: Yes, but that’s expensive. Most little county training centers don’t have that. In Bergen County, New Jersey, the training center has an extensive, modern, up-to-date propane burn building. Most other county and city fire department training centers have the old-fashioned burn buildings, which are better than nothing.
But the best training would be in acquired buildings-a house slated for demolition or a building that’s going to be knocked down. If you prepare the inside properly, following the NFPA standards, with real windows, real gypsum board on the walls, real beams under the floors-everything is real-and put a fire in a “real building,” then you experience real conditions.
Then, when a firefighter goes to a house fire some night, it will not be the first real house fire he’s been in. He’ll know how the floor beams feel under his feet, he’ll know how to break open walls, he’ll know where to put a hook up into the ceiling, he’ll know where the fire is going to be. There’s never extension in a burn building-the fire never leaves the room. In a real house, it gets into the walls and ceilings. You don’t get any of that training in a burn building, whether it’s the old-fashioned or a propane burn building.
LK: So you believe the firefighters who have not been trained in “real” conditions will experience more loss of life and property?
JS: Forget about the loss! Who’s in more danger, who’s going to be operating more safely? The firefighter who trained in a real live fire in an acquired building or the one who went to his first fire some night at midnight? Sometimes people check these firefighters off, “This firefighter did six fires in the burn building. He’s got his experience now.” But we really haven’t taught him all the real lessons he needs to know. If he goes to a fire the first night at the fire station, that firefighter is more likely to get hurt than the one who trained in a live fire building.
People tell me it’s dangerous to train in a burn building and very dangerous to train in a live acquired structure. They’re right; it is dangerous. But I think it’s even more dangerous to cut loose at midnight or two in the morning to put out a fire with a young firefighter who hasn’t put out a fire yet. If you have your safety people at your training, the danger is minimized. The firefighters are getting some experience, some legitimate experience. They will know what to expect when they go to the real thing. The burn building is just like little circuses. You go to see the fire, you get to put it out, and you get to think you’re really doing something, but nothing that happens at a real fire is really happening. There is no extension, no flashover, and no furniture, and there are no walls.
LK: Have environmental concerns overtaken opportunities to get proper training for firefighters?
JS: Absolutely. There are some states where you can’t light anything on fire because it creates smoke, and smoke is an environmental hazard-pollution and that’s that. We make environmental hazards like pollution a priority now over your house burning down or your dying in a fire.
Is it an environmental hazard? So now we don’t do it. Now we aren’t even allowed to light a fire to train on how to save the town and put out fires in their buildings because some environmentalists have made their thing a priority.
I use the example of cops. Are you allowed to just walk down Main Street in your town discharging a firearm? Well, no, but the cops have a shooting range and are allowed to discharge their guns in the city limits because that’s their job. They’re practicing to be good at what they do.
How come firefighters can’t light a fire to practice doing their vital job because the smoke is going to go up into the atmosphere? How come firefighters can’t set a building on fire to train 20 firefighters to be good firefighters and save the rest of the houses some day? If they do set a fire, they will be fined and cited in some places. But how come when the day after that training evolution for which the fire department got fined when the fire department gets called to a fire in a hardware store and the store burns down-and it’s on the front page of the newspaper-those same environmental people don’t track that guy down and give him a summons because his hardware store burned and caused all that smoke to go into the air? It’s ridiculous!
John Salka is a battalion chief with the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) and serves with the 18th Battalion in the Bronx. A 23-year veteran of the fire service, he has been involved with the Fire Department Instructors Conference for the past seven years and has taught at the FDNY Fire Academy, the New York State Academy of Fire Science, and the Orange County (NY) Fire Training Center.
Lauren Keyson is executive editor of Fire Engineering and conference manager for the Fire Department Instructors Conference. Previously, she directed digital and print publishing in high tech and finance. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science from UC Berkeley and a publishing certificate from Stanford University. If you have a burning issue to discuss in this column, email her at email@example.com.