By Mark van der Feyst
With the decrease in the number of structural fires that we attend each year comes complacency and rustiness. The fire service on a whole is seeing fewer fires than we did even 10 years ago. The lack of exposure and continual practice of our bread-and-butter operations is breeding a generation of firefighters who are deficient in structural firefighting, a high-risk event that occurs with less and less frequency. It seems that when we do respond to a structural fire, we have no time to think. This is a dangerous time for us, especially if we are rusty with our firefighting skills.
In 2011, firefighters responded to 1,389,500 fires in the United States with 485,500 fires occurring in structures. Residential fires accounted for 370,000 or 76 percent of the total number of fires in structures. This means that every 23 seconds a fire department is responding to a fire somewhere in the nation, with fires occurring in a structure every 65 seconds and in residential structures every 85 seconds (Karter, 2012).
In the fire service, it seems that we are moving away from live-fire training and focusing our attention elsewhere. Structural firefighting is a culmination of our basic skills that we must exercise consistently and constantly. We must be able to react in a habitual way that will allow us to operate safely, efficiently, and effectively. We seem to focus our attention on other high-risk events such as water rescue, trench rescue, confined space, rescue and rope rescue. Although these events certainly deserve our attention in training, they are not our everyday calls. For most fire departments across the country, when was the last time you responded to one of these special events listed above? When was the last time you responded to a structural fire call? As noted above, a structure fire takes place every 65 seconds. So why are we moving away from live-fire training?
We have two ways to conduct live-fire training: in fixed facilities or in acquired structures. Many large- and medium-sized fire departments have a live-burn tower located within their municipality. These structures are built using concrete or metal fabrication with special heat-absorbing linings on the inside. These facilities can be a Class A type facility (burning only Class A combustibles) or use propane. Either way, they offer an environment that somewhat resembles a structural fire, with real heat and flame for firefighters to confront. The drawback to a fixed facility is the high collapse safety factor built into the building. The stairs are constructed substantially to withstand the weight of firefighters and the heat produced from inside the burn tower; the walls, ceiling, and floor also constructed in the same manner. Most firefighters do not think about the safety aspect of checking the floors or sounding the steps in a fixed facility because they know the danger is extremely low. The safety factor of the fixed facility’s building construction is also an advantage as it provides a safety net for the crews operating inside and around the outside.
One drawback in a propane-fed tower is that the fire is not really real. There is a flame appearing, but with the turn of a switch, the push of a button, or the activation of sensors, the flame disappears. Did the attack crew really suppress the fire? Did they see how fire behaves when water is applied to it properly or improperly? In a Class A burn tower, the fire is real inasmuch as it is self-sustained and requires water to suppress it. One advantage of a fixed burn facility is that the structure will last, offering year-round opportunities for live fire training and other topics.
An acquired structure is a real structure that at one time was occupied and can be used for fire department training. Many acquired structures are given to fire departments to use for training, including live-fire training. These structures are a valuable asset to the fire department in that they provide low-cost training for department members under realistic conditions. Many fire departments are shying away from using acquired structures for live-fire training because they are perceived as producing an unsafe environment. It is my opinion that acquired structures can offer a very safe environment that will produce a realistic training opportunity when proper safety guidelines are followed and implemented. Acquired structures offer many benefits, such as realistic floor conditions, ceilings with lath and plaster or drywall, attic conditions, stair conditions, and realistic fire behavior conditions. An acquired structure can offer a full day or two (depending on the size of the structure) of realistic live-fire training. Depending on the training schedule and the care taken to secure the property, the acquired structure can provide weeks of training on other aspects of firefighting prior to live-fire training.
In these structures, the fire that is presented is real and, if not controlled or suppressed, will burn the house down. The firefighters entering into that structure needs to be aware of their surroundings, pay attention to the heat and smoke conditions, read the building, sound the floor in front of them, sound the steps as they ascend and descend, and make sure they find the fire as well as overhaul for any concealed fire. Acquired structures require situational awareness–this is as real as it will get. Controlling the risk and managing the danger is essential in making the evolutions a safe one.
Firefighters have died during live-fire training at fixed facility and acquired structures. From 2001 to 2010, 108 firefighters have died during training evolutions, of which 13 are attributed to live-fire training. Of the 13 fatalities, four are attributed to burns/smoke inhalation, two died from heat stroke, four died from sudden cardiac arrest, two died from an aneurysm or stroke, and one firefighter died as a result of being struck by an apparatus (Fahy, 2012). Although people associate these deaths with acquired structures, there is evidence to show a fixed facility is as dangerous and can take the life of a firefighter as easily as an acquired structure. On October 25, 2005, an adjunct instructor and a career captain died from his injuries sustained in a fixed facility because his face piece failed during the last fire evolution of the day (NIOSH, 2005). It is no wonder that many fire departments are shying away from using fixed facilities and acquired structures because of the its high risk.
One fire department is taking a proactive approach to live-fire training is the Six Nations Fire Department near Brantford, Ontario. Chief Michael Seth wanted to increase the experience and confidence levels of the entire department with respect to structural firefighting. He saw the best way to accomplish this was to conduct live-fire training. The fire department has access to numerous acquired structures, which is a benefit for them. The chief decided he was going to undertake this endeavor and do it the right way.
For these live burns to be conducted safely, a lot of preparation and planning was required. Chief Mike Seth, Division Chief of Training Vince Martin, and their core of live-fire instructors invest about 40 hours of planning and preparation for just one live burn day. The planning and preparation conducted was in accordance with the guidelines of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions, as well as other local/provincial requirements.
It begins with an inspection of the acquired structure. Certain jurisdictions suggest that a structural engineer conduct the inspection to determine the structural integrity and stability. This will add considerable costs to the training, but municipalities with a structural engineer on staff may eliminate that cost. The inspection will answer the question, “Can this structure be used for live-fire training?” The lead instructor and the incident safety officer must conduct the inspection. Having the chief and other pertinent officers accompany the inspection will help in identifying any hazards as well as making them aware of what needs to be done to make the structure ready. We are concerned with the structural stability of the building. Are the floors sound and solid? Are the walls and ceiling intact and not compromised? Are the stairs solid? How big are the windows on the second floor (i.e., can they be used as a secondary means of egress)? Are there two doorways on the first floor? Are the windows obstructed? Is the roof in good condition and not sagging, and is there a chimney inside or outside the house? Using a checklist will help in answering these questions and ensure that nothing is forgotten about with the inspection.
We are also concerned with the contents inside the structure such as carpeting, furniture, clothing, and garbage. Such items must be removed from the structure. The access around and to the structure has to be cleared as well. No obstructions are allowed around the structure, e.g., trees blocking the windows, garbage around the outside of the house, abandoned vehicles parked nearby, or anything that may hinder free access. If the structure has a basement, that area should not contain any flammable or combustible liquids. Furnace oil storage tanks must be pumped out and removed. Any water that may be in the basement must be pumped out to minimize the possibility of drowning if the floor is compromised. The inspection should account for any exposures, confirm that the utilities have been disconnected, and consider how the smoke will affect the surrounding area.
The inspection will also address the need to remove the roof shingles and/or exterior siding since some jurisdictions will require this to be done prior to the live-fire training exercise. This will reduce the overall fuel load on the structure exterior and remove any contamination exposure to the environment. Some local jurisdictions may also require testing for the presence of asbestos and lead-based paint in the acquired structure. The local department of environmental protection (DEP) may also require such testing since it will issue a permit attesting that the premises has been cleared of any environmental contaminants and are ready for live-fire training. Without this permit, you cannot conduct the training exercise and criminal charges can be laid. On March 9, 2009, two firefighters from Pittsburgh were charged with conspiring to burn down a house for fire training purposes despite knowing that it contained asbestos. These charges involved the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and were eventually dropped.
The fire chief or the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) may also have to issue a permit for the live fire training exercise, in addition to the DEP permit since it will ensure that all requirements of NFPA 1403 have been met and the structure is approved for the training day.
Once the inspection has been completed, draw a floor plan and a site plan to determine the fire locations, placement of apparatus, placement and number of hoselines, staging areas for the rapid intervention team, the command post, equipment, rehab, and parking. The floor plan will determine the amount of Class A fuel such as pallets and straw bales needed. To establish the number and type of apparatus needed, determine the required water flow based on the size of the structure and any exposures. NFPA Standard 1142, Standard on Water Supplies for Suburban and Rural Firefighting, is the appropriate reference.
The lead instructor needs to select and appoint a safety officer who will assist in planning and preparing of the exercise, and select assistant instructors. The assistant instructors will supervise the various assigned task groups during each evolution. These instructors need to be well trained and certified to conduct live-fire training. Depending on local jurisdictional requirements, qualifying live-fire instructors may vary from place to place. In Pennsylvania, the process to become a live-fire instructor or suppression instructor is as follows.
The member must:
- Have 10 years of active fire service.
- Be 28 years of age or older.
- Have three letters of reference from Pennsylvania State Fire Academy Local Level “Suppression Level” Instructors.
- Have 150 hours of documented Structural Track Training
- Have Fire Fighter II Certification (e.g., National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications (NBFSPQ) or International Fire Service Accreditation Congress (IFSAC))
- Hav eFire Service Instructor II (NBFSPQ or IFSAC)
- Have Engine Company Operations at Residential Fires — ZSFB and Fire Operations at Large Structures — ZSFA.
- Completion of the United States Department of Defense/United States Air Force Fire Protection Specialist
- Technical Training Course at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas or (formerly) Chanute Air Force Base, Illinois.
- Harrisburg Area Community College, Public Safety Center’s firefighter recruit class for career departments.
- Completion of a recruit level formal course of not less than 150 hours in length (with emphasis on structural firefighting) required as a condition of employment in a career department.
- Educational Methodologies for Local Level Instructors
- Incident Safety Officer — National Fire Academy (NFA)
Only those individuals who meet the above qualifications are allowed to lead and conduct live-fire training in that state. Other states or jurisdictions may only require individuals to be certified by the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) as a live fire instructor. The ISFSI offers a train-the-trainer class for live-fire instruction that ensures that individuals are conducting this type of class to NFPA 1403 standards.
The number of instructors needed will be based on the number of students participating. A minimum of 15 students is suggested to make sure the exercise can run smoothly. An instructor ratio of 1:5 is required for any high-risk training as required by NFPA 1403. For live-fire training, five to seven instructors are recommended, depending upon the objectives for that day. The Six Nations Fire Department uses between seven and 12 instructors for all live-fire training since it allows them to cycle instructors in and out of rehab and also provides extra hands for any unexpected problems.
Notifications about the live-fire training day that will be taking place shortly are sent to fire dispatch, students, and police, if needed, and the surrounding residents. This requirement may vary in process and procedure from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The students then undergo a four-hour in-class refresher session covering the important aspects of structural firefighting. The theory covered includes a review of building construction, fire behavior, safety on the fireground, and individual roles for assigned tasks. Prior to any student taking any live-fire training, the student must have been trained and signed off on the job performance requirements for Firefighter I in NFPA 1001, Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications:
1. Radio usage
2. Fire behavior
3. Portable fire extinguishers
5. Fire hose, appliances, and streams
7. Water supply
8. Horizontal and vertical ventilation
9. Forcible entry
10. Self-contained breathing apparatus
11. Vehicle safety
12. Search and rescue
13. Fire extinguishment
14. Structural firefighting
15. Scene illumination
16. Tool maintenance
Emergency medical service (EMS) personnel take the baseline vitals of each student so when medical monitoring is conducted on the training day, EMS will have a set of baseline vitals to compare to. The students also have their gear inspected to ensure that all components are present, in working condition, gear integrity is not compromised, and all gear fits properly. The individual and the lead instructor sign the inspection documents, which are given to the chief as a part of the record of training.
The day before the training exercise, wet line drills are conducted, in which students practice the required tasks without live fire. Instructors review advancing hoselines, searching, hydraulic ventilation, and ladder raising to the students. This “dress rehearsal” allows students to know what exactly they will be doing the day of live-fire training.
The day of live-fire training will require an hour or two first thing in the morning to set up all required staging areas, establish required water supply, park all needed apparatus, set up rehab along with EMS, and get hoselines into position and ensure correct water flow and pressure. The lead instructor will conduct a student safety briefing and an instructor briefing and have the appointed safety officer do a last-minute check to verify all needed components are in place. At this the time, a complete walkthrough of the burn building is conducted for the instructors and the students. The walkthrough’s purpose is to familiarize the individual with all exit and entrance locations, the presence of and control measures for any known hazards, all doors and window locations, and to allow participants to ask any questions before training begins. Once all has been verified, the live-fire training day is ready to begin.
A lot of work is involved in making sure that a day of live training goes smoothly with no problems and that all are safe and accounted for. The description above is an abbreviated version of actual events. This is in no way a recipe for any one person to follow if they are considering conducting a live-fire training day. If you are considering planning such a day, contact a person who has done this before and is certified to lead live-fire training to get guidance.
Live-fire training is a dangerous, high-risk event, but with proper and thorough planning and preparation, you can conduct a safe training day if you take the time and are properly guided. There is much value gained with live-fire training and the fire service should be embracing it, not parting with it.
Fahy, R. F. (2012). U.S. Firefighter Deaths Related to Training, 2001-2010. Quincy: National Fire Protection Association.
Karter, M. J. (2012). Fire Loss in the United States During 2011. Quincy: National Fire Protection Association.
NIOSH. (2005). Career Officer Injured During a Live Fire Evolution at a Training Academy Dies Two Days Later – Pennsylvania. Morgantown: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
MARK VAN DER FEYST is a 14-year veteran of the fire service and a member of the Woodstock (Ontario, Canada) Fire Department. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States, and India; a local level suppression instructor for the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy; and an instructor for the Justice Institute of British Columbia.