Necessary, Dangerous, or Both: Live Fire Training in Acquired Structures

By Frank Ricci and Jim Duffy

Recently, there has been much discussion and debate about whether we should be doing live-fire training in acquired structures. I have been involved in the fire service training for many years and firmly believe that live-fire training is absolutely necessary if we are to properly prepare our firefighters to safely extinguish fires and save lives. Burn buildings and towers are very good for teaching basic firefighting skills to beginning firefighters, they but they do little to increase firefighters’ skills and their situational awareness as their careers progress. These buildings do not resemble or react to fire in the same way as a real fire building would. Propane burn buildings do not prepare firefighters for the real thing, either.

New firefighters are quite surprised when the “real fires” do not extinguish the same way as propane fires. They are also completely surprised when they open a line in a structure fire and visibility quickly decreases. If we want to do a better job of reducing firefighter fatalities, we need to do a better job of training them for what they will actually face while operating at structure fires.

We should do everything possible to minimize the risk of injuring a firefighter in training, but we would be negligent if we sent them into structure fires not ready to do the job safely. If we decide to use acquired structures for live-fire training, it is imperative that we prepare the building properly and follow all the safety procedures outlined in National Fire Protection Association 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions.

  • Mitigate hazards such as asbestos, holes in floors, missing stairs, cracked or damaged gypsum board, plaster, and combustible surfaces such as fiberboard that could allow for fire spread, or any other unsafe conditions.

  • Build in as many safety controls as possible.

  • If any component of the structure is not structurally sound, instructor-in-charge is responsible to render it safe or find another structure.

  • Light only one fire at a time, with a designated burn officer with a charged line standing by.

  • Use only the proper fuels and in limited amounts.

  • Stage a well-trained and experienced rapid intervention team (RIT) on scene, not a group of first-time firefighters.

  • Be sure to predeploy safety lines, precut ventilation holes, and have multiple means of egress.

  • Most importantly, do a walk-through with all students, reviewing all safety precautions and emergency procedures with them.

  • Ensure your department has the appropriate instructor-to-student ratio and that instructors are experienced.

  • Maintain strict discipline in avoiding overcrowding in case an evacuation becomes necessary, and keep areas of egress such as stairways and hallways clear at all times.

  • Make sure your department has received the proper permissions, permits, insurance, and any other paperwork required in your jurisdiction. NFPA 1403 provides a check list to help ensure compliance.

We recently participated in live fire training for Fire Engineering‘s filming of “Firefighter Survival Techniques: Prevention to Intervention” in Guilford, Connecticut, and learned of a simple safety measure that can and should be used at all acquired structure burns–and maybe in dedicated burn buildings, as well.

The Guilford (CT) Fire Department is a combination fire department serving a community on the shores of Long Island Sound in southern Connecticut, headed by Chief Charles Herrschaft. Assistant Chief Wayne Vetre developed an innovative safety feature that we thought was new, but we were told that Guilford Fire has been using this additional safety device for 10 years. They hang a portable, homemade sprinkler system down the hall to protect the means of egress. This is a simple system the members made themselves using an old sprinkler pipe with about a half a dozen open heads. This system is strapped to the ceiling or walls and connected to a 1¾-inch hoseline through a hole cut into an exterior wall.

During the briefing, Assistant Chief Vetre informed the students and instructors that in the event of an emergency or a Mayday, anyone on the scene can call “Charge the sprinkler!” Such a call does not have to be cleared though anyone, including command. Put the fire out and the problem goes away! The system took 10 minutes to set up and can incorporate a T-connection to extend down a hall. The system was demonstrated on the last fire of the day. We let the fire get going pretty good and called “Charge the sprinkler!” Once it was charged, in about two seconds, the fire was extinguished. We would also advocate a using second system to cover the attic.

A second advantage of using this at the last burn is that it reduces the chance of rekindle. Guilford leaves the system in place until the next day. If a rekindle was to occur, the sprinkler system could be used to control the fire.

The members of Guilford made this device themselves. It looks simple enough, but if you have a relationship with a sprinkler company in your area, I bet they would fabricate one for your department. After seeing this device, I would advise its use at all acquired structure burns. I would also like to see the NFPA look into adding this to the next revision of 1403. Assistant Chief Wayne Vetre and the authors are submitting a feature article for the print edition of Fire Engineering.

To keep your firefighters safe they deserve the most realistic and the safest training!

Jim Duffy, a career firefighter for 16 years, has served shift commander with the Wallingford (CT) Fire Department for the past seven. He started his fire service career with the Mineola (NY) Fire Department, attaining the rank of captain. A nationally certified fire instructor, Duffy is an adjunct instructor at the Middlesex Regional Fire School and developed the firefighter safety program Prevention, Not Intervention. A member of Ricci Associates, he serves on the peer review board for He was the division chief for the Yale Survivability Study on the Last Chance SCBA Back-Up Filter. Duffy has worked on several DVD projects for Fire Engineering and is currently working on a DVD on firefighter survival techniques.

Frank Ricci has been a member of the New Haven (CT) Fire Department for 11 years and the director of fire services for the Connecticut Council on Occupational Safety & Health (ConnectiCOSH). He is an adjunct instructor for the New Haven, Top Rung, and Middlesex County Fire School; a subject matter consultant for Yale, FDNY, DuPont, and Williams Direct Dryers; and lead consultant for the Last Chance filter for Essex PB&R. He was a contributing author to Carbon Monoxide Poisoning. Ricci previously worked for the Bethesda and Chevy Chase (MD) Rescue Squad and the South Fire District in Connecticut and was a “student live-in” at Station 31 in Rockville, Maryland. He was a coauthor of Connecticut’s whistle blower law, the task force chair of New Haven’s Injury Rehabilitation Initiative (endorsed by the IAFF), the developer the video Smoke Showing for Fire Engineering and several DVD projects for PennWell, and a cofounder of Stay tuned for Frank’s DVD on live-fire training, coming soon from Fire Engineering Books & Video.

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