Tactical Safety for Firefighters: Live-Burned

By Ray McCormack

The proliferation of instant news and viral-circulation videos can cause quite the buzz. The fire service has many examples of popular videos showing us at work. Some of these videos, of course, are not very complimentary. Anyone with a smart phone can become a documentarian. The video of the live action is often accompanied by an uninformed narrative. Still, in many of these cases, there is much to be learned from these moments in time.

Our actions are now a performance to be judged by all and commented on in social media sites and discussion threads. Usually, after a considerable bashing has taken place, a lone commentator will try and hold back the tide by stating that they were there and you, the viewer, did not see everything. This voice of reason and frustration, while often necessary to reset some of us and get the discussion back on track, often falls short without additional facts. A proper defense cannot survive on just the typical fallback line, “You weren’t there so you don’t know.” We want to know, and don’t spare the gory details. Sanitization of any unflattering experience or spin works only for so long against astute viewers. The almost instantaneous posting of live events curtails story spin; conversely, a lag in posting allows properly formatted spin the opportunity to protect and deflect.

Last week, we saw several videos of a training burn gone wrong. What is fascinating is that the live burn occurred six months ago. A six-month-old video finally going public showing firefighters jumping out windows for their lives.

The six-month lag is news all by itself. Think about it. People were filming this event from multiple perspectives, several firefighters were seriously burned, and there is no story for six months–a virtual news blackout. There is nothing there for the fire service to understand and share for six months? The training burn occurred in January, but only now can we see and hear this near-fatal event unfold and start to learn how and why this training horror occurred.

The training of firefighters using live fire is serious business. When we see firefighters bailing out of windows during a training burn, we are witnessing a lapse in command, leadership, and training. How does an event like this occur? Two key reasons are that the people who run these events may not fully understand interior firefighting and that the rules of the training exercise are not tight enough.

There is a huge difference between a burn injury while extinguishing a fire and one where participants suffer burns while trying to escape the fire.

In the modern fire world, people can take a class and be certified in any discipline; however, live fire training should be held to a higher standard. It is not enough that you call yourself a training officer. You should have many years of actual fireground experience, and you should have been mentored in this specialty by someone who understood the big picture.

Can a small error occur, a slipup? Yes, but that is why you build in redundancy and strict rules of engagement. Firefighters jumping out of windows to survive your training evolution is not a small error!

National fire organizations like the International Association of Fire Chiefs are constantly telling us to be careful, especially during training. Yet we see a six-month-old video that shows two firefighters within seconds of death at a training burn. What is the reason? We can’t always say someone just made a mistake, not in training. The proverbial “net is in place if you fall” appears to be missing here.

The safety of firefighters is paramount in training because we control the event. Live fire events are no exception. When a training event failure like this takes place, the reaction by many is to call for a ban on this type of training. I would absolutely disagree. The need for live fire training has never been greater; however, I understand that call because people are tired of the excuses. We got lucky at this training disaster. The firefighters were only burned! Tell that to them. These outrageous events put undue pressure on the conscientious training officers out there. We need to enhance National Fire Protection Association 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions, on a quicker timeline. We need to celebrate the people who do this without serious injury and get them involved.

I hope that the investigation of this training burn and why firefighters’ lives were unnecessarily jeopardized doesn’t take another six months to come to the attention of the fire service as the original videos. We should have had the information already. Remember the phrase, “If this could save one life, then it is worth it.”  By not sharing this event, the error lives on untold. A six-month-delay and a lack of disclosure cause all of us to be “live-burned.”


Ray McCormack: Tactical Safety for Firefighters

RAY McCORMACK is a 30-year veteran and a lieutenant with FDNY. He is the publisher and editor of Urban Firefighter Magazine. He delivered the keynote address at FDIC in 2009 and he is on the Editorial Board of Fire Engineering Magazine.

No posts to display