Stay The Course

By John J. Salka, Jr.

I received a phone call from a friend on July 30 informing me that two firefighters had been killed in a training accident in the state of Florida earlier that day. One of those killed was Lt. John K. Mickel of the Osceola County (FL) Fire Department, a friend and colleague of mine. The other firefighter was Dallas Begg, a new recruit who recently started with the department.

I was shocked to find out that these two firefighters had been killed in a training fire in a relatively small residential building, with every standard precaution in place, supervised by several highly respected and able fire officers with extensive training experience. Even more disturbing to me personally was that this was a “live fire” exercise–disturbing because I recently contributed to Fire Engineering magazine’s Burning Issues column “Live Fire Training vs. Little Circuses”. I have been a vocal advocate of real or true live fire training vs. the several other, less realistic alternatives for years, and now a friend and fellow instructor of mine has been killed by the very activity that I have so loudly championed. Add this recent tragedy to the death of a firefighter in upstate New York that resulted in the felony conviction of an assistant chief from that department, and I began to think that maybe this would be and should be the end of live fire training.

Several weeks have passed, and I have been thinking about my friend John Mickel; my other friends and brother firefighters who I work with in the Fire Department of New York; my fellow instructors who work hands-on training a major and minor training conferences throughout the United States; the 1,200 brand new firefighters hired by FDNY since 9-11; and the thousands of firefighters all over the country who will be asked to enter burning buildings at all hours of the day and night to fight fires and save lives. They need live fire training! We all need it! We need it to be ready to fight the fires that we will be faced with. We need it to prepare us for the actual conditions that we will encounter in a one-room fire in a one-story frame suburban home. We need it to experience the zero visibility and maze-like conditions that we will be required to negotiate on the floor above a tenement fire. We need it to experience the real heat levels that we can expect to operate in and to recognize the dangerous levels that we need to retreat from. We need it to evaluate the structural stability of the areas we are operating in. We need it to be able to study the smoke movement and colors that indicate danger, flashover, backdraft, and a host of other fireground dangers. We need it for all of these and many other reasons, but what about John Mickel and Dallas Begg? Did these men die for no good reason? Did they give their lives for a worthless and dangerous activity whose time has passed? I think not.

Do I think we need to look at live fire training and make it safer? YES! Do I think that in spite of the tragic results of these most recent live fire training events, many more firefighters have been saved by live fire training than killed by it? YES! Do I think that we need to re-dedicate ourselves to effective, realistic, productive, meaningful, hands-on, live fire training? YES!

In the hours and days following the deaths of these two dedicated fire service professionals, I began to doubt the value of an activity that could kill even one more brave firefighter. What I realize now is that if we stop conducting live fire training, more firefighters will die! Not at training, but at fires, real fires. They will get lost, they will run out of air, they will stay too long, stand too early. It is impossible to measure the number of firefighters who are alive today because of effective training, but it is big, really big.

To my friend John Mickel and to Dallas Begg, you did not die in vain. Your dedication to training and service will live on at every training fire on every fireground where smoke rises. Your untimely deaths will not cast a shadow over fire training, and the ultimate goal of that training–the saving of lives–but it will instead shine a bright light of hope, change, and rededication on the training that keeps us alive to save another life tomorrow.

Rest in peace, brothers.

John J. Salka Jr. is battalion chief of Battalion 18 and a 23-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York. He has previously worked in engine, ladder, rescue, and squad companies in various boroughs of the city. He has also instructed at the FDNY Fire Academy in the Probationary Firefighters School, the Captains Management Program, the Firefighters Professional Development Program, and most recently the Battalion Chief’s Command Course. He writes and lectures extensively throughout the United States and was the recipient of the 2001 Fire Engineering Training Achievement Award.
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