CONDUCTING SAFE LIVE BURNS
Photo courtesy of Scranton Fire Department New York.
As is the case in many parts of the country, volunteer fire departments comprise the majority of the fire protection for western New York state. The ability of these departments to train adequately is limited to in-house company drills, a state fire course or two, and an occasional trip to the smokehouse. Although these sessions provide firefighters with a basis of information and skills, the most important ingredient —that of experience—is missing. Incorporating a livefire exercise into the overall training program adds a totally different dimension to the program. Live-fire training concentrates on aggressive, coordinated interior fire suppression operations.
Unfortunately, when one speaks of live-fire training, focus quickly turns to several disastrous incidents that have occurred across our country in the past few years. Naturally, catastrophes put a damper on one of the most effective training tools available, and many would even condemn all liveburn sessions as too risky, something to be banned completely. Although this attitude is one of concern and is perfectly legitimate, I contend that it is possible to remove a good deal of the risks involved and make live-burn training safe, fulfilling, and fun.
I have been involved with a group of instructors, comprised mainly of Buffalo (NY) Fire Department officers and firefighters, who have been conducting live burn instruction since 1985. In more than two dozen such sessions involving more than 50 fire departments and close to 1,000 individual participants, only one significant injury —a cut finger —has ever occurred. Luck? Not at all. Using NFFA 1403, Standard on Live Fire Evolutions in Structures, as a guide, and incorporating extensive preparation along with our experience and a common-sense approach, we have set the foundations of a safe, successful adventure.
Following is an outline of the process we developed and which has given our department safe, successful results.
Generally, someone in our group is contacted by a fire department that has acquired a building site and is interested in conducting a live-burn training session. Many times these structures stand in the way of new development, and the fire department has drafted an agreement with the owner/contractor to burn the building down in exchange for its use as a training site. Several members of our group meet at the proposed location with several representatives of the fire department —the chief, the training and safety officers, and so forth —for a general examination. The inspection is basically a preliminary survey of the area to determine if the site is suitable for a live-burn training session. Besides thoroughly checking the building’s structural fitness, we also analyze the locale for overall feasibility. We determine if the site poses any significant problems for neighboring buildings and downwind communities that may be in the path of smoke as well as the site’s proximity to highways, power lines, or any other features that would hamper our operation.
If the site proves to be favorable, a lengthy dialogue with the host fire department is now in order. Often the aspirations of the fire department are unrealistic. Occasionally, the host department just wants to burn down the building with no more effort than it takes to set up its equipment and watch the structure go. If the department persists after we explain that it is not in the demolition business, we generally don’t get involved. For the most part, the majority of the fire departments are solely interested in an extensive live-burn session and are willing to do anything necessary. After discussing the fundamental objectives of the project, the group sets up a formal meeting date, usually at the host department’s facility, where the logistics of the future training event are hashed out. We also insist that the fire department review NFPA 1403 before our next meeting.
Within a short time, we conduct a follow-up meeting with the host department’s fire chief, the chiefs assistants, the department training officer, and a safety representative. At this attendance, the technical aspects of the live burn are worked out, and basic goals and general requirements are determined. In addition, we closely examine the requirements of NFPA 1403We effect a step-by-step analysis of the document, always stressing the department’s responsibilities. We make it very clear that there is no compromise with 1403’s conditions.
We also discuss the training prerequisites, schedule the required preburn instruction sessions, and address logistical aspects such as EMS, support, food and refreshment provisions, transportation, and traffic control/rerouting. One major consideration is the collection and storage of burnables for use as fuel for each fire scenario. We always require the host department to secure an ample supply of only class A fuels, including furniture, mattresses, box springs, cardboard boxes, pillows, kindling wood (lath works well), and hay/straw. Tires, plastics, and highly flammables are not acceptable. By far, the best fuel proves to be old, overstuffed furniture (sofas, chairs, pillows, and so forth); these items provide the most realistic conditions with regard to smoke, heat, and fire spread. Much of this material can be obtained on community “trash days.” Several members with a pickup truck can gather and transport enough fuel pieces to satisfy a day of training. The more, the better—it really makes a difference in the amount and quality of the individual burns. Much of this accumulated material can be stored on or near the site, hopefully out of the elements.
Our next step is a general site inspection, for which host fire department representatives normally are present. We conduct a close review of the structure and the site; problems related to construction aspects and lot must be rectified before any training can commence. We examine the outside area for wells, cisterns, obstructing wires or trees, and, of course, adjacent exposures. Inside the structure, we check for possible hazards involving stairs, windows, floor stability, rubbish, wall paneling (which presents high flashover risk), and haz mats (paints, poisons, tires, and so forth).
(Top photo by author; bottom photo courtesy of Scranton Fire Department.)
At this time, we also discuss how we will approach the structure as a training medium. Fire scenarios and burn set locations are considered with regard to their ability to facilitate training objectives. Some buildings have great potential, with rooms and hallways of considerable size that make access favorable. Other structures possess less than desirable features: small, narrow hallways; tight, turning stairwells; poor general room layouts; and so forth. We take all these physical aspects of the structure into account and formulate an overall plan that will give the firefighters the most benefit while affording the safest possible conditions.
The group considers fire flow requirements and general vehicle placement assignments. We naturally try to use existing hydrants, ponds, and other water sources to the fullest extent, augmenting needed flow with any secondary sources available (i.e., tankers, LDH, portable ponds, water shuttles, and so forth).
At this time, we also draw up a site plan, which includes building dimensions, including locations of rooms, doors, windows, and so forth; provisions for parking private vehicles; fire apparatus staging area; EMS area; and reclamation sector, to mention a few. Before we leave the site, we make a list of w hat must be physically done to the building and the grounds to prepare them properly. These tasks include cleaning up debris, weeds, and trees around the structure and clearing out all interior rubbish. Sometimes, the junk found in an old house can be used as fuel; anything not suitable can be placed in a nonusable room with the door nailed shut. Other tasks may include the removal of an unsafe chimney, renailing a loose banister, or covering an old well. Many times, departmental “work details” are employed to handle these tasks within a set time frame.
Generally, several timely site inspections are conducted to check on the progress of the needed repairs/ improvements. A day or so before the actual burn session, the building is given a final check, during which an emergency vent hole is cut in the roof and a pull-off rope is secured to a cover and tied off. Any additional exits to be used as safety egresses or for better access points also are constructed. The doors to unusable rooms and water-filled basements are nailed shut. To make sure all aspects of the venture have been addressed, a 1403 “checklist” is reviewed.
The final preburn obligation to meet before the training session takes place is an in-house training program. This one-night classroom event generally is conducted during the week preceding the burn date. We lay dow n tactical background so that philosophical firefighting differences do not arise during the actual burn. We seek to eliminate any fundamental misconceptions through thorough explanation and, if necessary, with a short demonstration. This way, the instructors have complete control over the methods the firefighters will use and the fire students know what methods and techniques are acceptable to use during the actual drill. We conclude this session with a final examination of our NFPA 1403 “checklist.” BURN DAY
By the time the live burn training date rolls around, everything should be ready. However, several hundred phone calls and last-minute arrangements always seem to be necessary. All participants meet at 8:00 a m. at the host fire department’s station for coffee and donuts and final preburn directions. Instructors are introduced to the entire group; lines of authority and control are established; and safety designations, team assignments, systems of communication, and EMS arrangements are finalized. Building site plans and assignments of fire apparatus, as seen through chalkboard diagrams, also are reviewed. All lastminute arrangements are concluded, and the assemblage heads for the site.
On scene, positioning of fire vehicles, securing water supplies (two sources), laying of hose, and placement of safety ladders are some of the first tasks addressed. We always assemble hand tools, SCBA, extra air bottles, etc. on a tarp (tool station) near the main building entry point. The tool-staging area facilitates quick tool access and is designed to control the “lost tool phenomenon”; crews are required to return all equipment to this area. An appropriate command post, rehabilitation area, EMS sector, emergency evacuation location, and spectator zone are designated. Floor plans are nailed up in front and in back of the structure, and a sign in/out sheet for on-site personnel accountability is also posted. Burnables (fuel) now are carried to an area in close proximity to the structure. All participants are required to do a preburn walk-through, usually conducted by the host fire department’s safety representative, during which aspects of the structure such as exits, hazards, safety features, and so forth are pointed out.
As this multitude of chores is being completed, the instructors are conducting their own final check. We review fire scenarios, make assignments, address safety policies, and pass out radios and equipment. An “instructor-in-charge” is appointed to act as the overall commander of the operation. We generally select the most experienced individual for this position, due to an incident commander’s great responsibility. We also select a safety officer/instructor to provide overall safety control, monitor crew movement, coordinate the fire area, monitor building stability and inspection, and oversee emergency vent hole operation.
The safety officer is in constant contact with command and interior instructor teams. Other instructor assignments include two inside crew members responsible for controlling and monitoring firefighting activities. Their duties include building and lighting the fires, initiating attack orders, and regulating entry teams. These instructors are in constant communication with command via radio. In addition to this control/ coordination team, an interior safety team of two operates the safety line and is responsible for protecting all interior operations. This safety line is placed in close proximity to the burn area to protect personnel during the lighting of fires and to control/extinguish the fires if any problems develop during the drills. An instructor also is assigned to each of w hat is usually two hose groups: attack and backup. Another instructor leads a truck crew. These team instructors act as coaches, briefing the team before entry, supporting them as they advance, and immediately correcting any mistakes they make. Additional instructors act in capacities such as vent teams, observation guides, and tactical reviewadvisors, to name a few. These positions change during the course of the day to spread the work load over several individuals, keeping instructors fresh and vigilant.
As necessary arrangements are finalized, all participants gather in a quiet area for a preburn briefing. Lastminute directions include a review of overall safety procedures, turnout gear policy, evacuation signals, identification of the safety team and incident commander, and so forth. We also take this opportunity to make clear the lines of authority, who has the final say, and how all individuals will conduct themselves for the remainder of the session. Entry into the structure from this point on is limited to a “with-permission-only” basis. Since this is a real fire, participants are not allowed to wander in and out as they please. Personnel are recorded by an assigned safety team (members of the host fire department) as they enter and exit the structure.
Handlines, which already have been stretched, are now charged to the proper pressure, and nozzles are opened to check stream consistency and shape. The safety line is stretched into the structure and also charged. Note: This safety line is always on a different w^ater source (pumper) than the handlines and is fully staffed, as previously mentioned, by instructors only, giving the drill an added measure of safety.
The actual burn sessions generally start with a small fire or smoke drill. Utilizing a smoldering cushion or pillow(straw works well) set in a stove, sink, or bathtub, enough smoke is produced to obscure vision. This type of low-impact drill gives the firefighters a chance to “feel out” the processes such as line advancement, teamwork, coordination, cooperation, and so forth. We seldom initiate a search mode during actual burns, as we want everyone to focus on the fire in each scenario. Throughout all evolutions, the safety team directs and keeps a record of who enters and exits the structure, especially between the individual scenarios. Note: The building is cleared of noninstructor personnel after each drill, and the safety team monitors entry points for unauthorized entry.
After several smoke drills, bulkier pieces of furniture are placed in predetermined locations and ignited. Initial fires are kept on the small side, set in a closet or bathroom, and as firefighters gain confidence, larger fires are set. We allow most of the more substantial fires to progress to the desired extent, generally until flames begin to roll over the ceiling. When the fire is at the right intensity, an attack crew-, just outside the building or on the staircase below, moves in to extinguish the fire. Overall coordination at this time is most important; delays can cause loss of control. Inside instructors and command are therefore in constant radio contact with each other.
While interior crews make the push into the fire area, outside vent teams, under the wary eye of an experienced instructor, perform horizontal ventilation. Utilizing an assortment of storm windows removed from the structure and safely stored prior to burn day, windows can be broken, replaced, and broken again. This is a very useful evolution, as it is difficult to practice window venting anywhere else.
[Photo courtesy of East Amherst (NY) Fire Department.]
As each fire is knocked down, a truck crew with an instructor/coach moves in to perform overhaul. This truck company function is one of the most important aspects of live-burn training, as it affords a “hands-on” approach. The crew pulls ceilings and opens walls, employing tools normally not utilized in routine departmental training events. This is invaluable instruction; techniques and tricks of the trade are demonstrated and practiced under true fire conditions. Fundamentals of fire travel are seen as they actually happen.
On occasion, depending on the building dimensions and area, observation teams can watch the ignition and progression of a particular fire. Using an observation hole or a room adjacent to the fire room, selected personnel, accompanied by an instructor, can observe aspects rarely seen in normal firefighting activities. Of course, these “observation areas” are protected by the safety line and are always a step away from an exit. The observation team always is in direct contact w ith the safety instructor and command.
As crews are rotated through several burn scenarios, firefighters are rested and hydrated. At this time, we review tactics and techniques. It is also important to give instructors a break period; tired personnel often let their guard down, and due to the nature of this type of training, it is not desirable for anyone to be off guard.
As the session progresses through the day, fire scenarios generally expand to a larger scale. Sometimes several rooms are set at once. In these cases, attack teams are comprised of the more experienced firefighters. In spite of the fact that some of these later burns are sizable, they are quickly extinguished. Since most of the building already has been opened up, little smoke is created, and crews advance and douse fires with much more dispatch.
(Photo courtesy of Scranton Fire Department.)
In the course of the day-long session, several general break periods are provided. Building damage assessment, tactical/logistical adjustments, and safety reviews are addressed during these pauses.
By the end of the day, everyone has seen enough fire, and the firefighters are wet and tired. We call it a day while safety levels are still high, since a huge amount of equipment still has to be picked up. and the structure has to be burned down. If we can, we postpone the final burndown to another day—crews are fresher, there is more time available —it generally works out better. In that case, the building has to be secured from unwanted entry before leaving the site; and in any case, the fire has to be totally, unmistakably out.
If the host fire department plans to burn down the structure at the conclusion of that day’s session, we make sure some daylight is left. Preparation and total burndown can take longer than you think. Terminal burn is done as quickly as possible; high amounts of smoke and a column of embers are not desirable at this point. To encourage swift building takedown, the structure is opened up from within, exposing inner studs, ceiling joists, and lath for a hot fire. Cutting holes between floors encourages speedy vertical fire spread. Additional roof vent holes draw the flames into the roof area rapidly. The more quickly the fire extends, the better; the building will burn hotter, cutting down a great deal on the generation of smoke. Even buildings that have been soaked by day-long hose use burn swiftly when properly prepared.
We always save several pieces of dry furniture along with additional wood pallets for the burn-ignition set. This fuel is placed in advantageous positions, i.e., in stairwells, under vent holes, in floor extension holes, and in the basement. Before the building is ignited, the safety officer (an instructor) does a final interior check for personnel, and entry points are guarded so as to admit no one.
After the final okay from the IC, the building is ignited, and ignition teams report to the command post where, together with the IC and safety instructor, they monitor the burning structure through its destruction.
Throughout the entire burndown process, water appliances are in place to handle any unforeseen problems. Frequently, several large lines, turrets, or ladder pipes are set up to knock down the majority of the tire brands created. Although it is always very tempting for crews with the “big guns” to apply water on the burning structure, resist doing so unless it is absolutely necessary. Any water put on the structure lengthens your stay, as the rubble will be cooled sufficiently to smolder rather than free burn.
Generally, the host fire department also will set up a “watch patrol” to monitor surrounding neighborhoods and check for falling brands.
If the fire is left to burn without interference, (i.e., water), almost everything will be consumed, leaving only the basement walls and chimney.
Depending on how long we have use of the building, we sometimes arcable to use it for several preburn sessions. These episodes are strictly nonfire drills dedicated to general instruction.
In one training exercise we commonly present, we fill a structure with furniture (future fuel for burn sessions) as if the building were occupied. Vie place several dummies in suitable locations, and the structure is smoked (hay in a barrel). Fire crews, already briefed in search and rescue tactics, are allowed to respond from the station, set up. initiate search, and remove any victims they find. This drill is quite beneficial, as it challenges firefighters, officers, and command personnel to use their skills and training without compromising their safety.
Another typical preburn exercisedeals with roof ventilation. Many times property sites have “out” buildings on the location (e g sheds, small barns, garages, etc. ). Since the roofs of these structures generally have safe, walkable surfaces, they can be used for informal instruction for fundamental techniques and basic tool usagethrough demonstrations. After learning ladder placement and chopping and sawing procedures, individuals have the opportunity to perform “hands-on” evolutions. Again, we introduce a little nuisance smoke (hay in a barrel) to give the participants life-like conditions while they master their skills.
We provide instruction in forcible entry on doors nailed shut. We have even removed locks from other doors in the structure and used them as replacement locks, letting firefighters force the same door over and over.
Areas or rooms in the structure not used in the burn session may be appropriated for overhaul training. Adopting correct tool usage and technical skill, ceilings and walls can be “pulled” routinely for simulated inspection. Again, proper tool familiarization and application methods are the main training goals.
When we have the advantage of a lengthy time frame, we naturally try to get the most use out of a structure. General instruction sessions can be evening dates of short duration or may run a complete day. It all depends on what the fire department wants to accomplish and how long the structure is available.
Although live-burn training leans toward the development of individual skills and gaining much needed experience, it provides an additional dimension: Live fire instruction actually elevates company morale and improves departmental cohesiveness. As firefighters learn how to work as a crew, depending on each other and trusting one another, their common bond is strengthened. Camaraderie is one of the main ingredients of a strong, highly motivated work unit. Not only does this strengthening occur in individuals within the fire department, but it also improves the relationships among neighboring fire organizations that become involved in joint live-burn sessions. As several mutual-aid departments engage in joint live-burn ventures, it generally solidifies working rapport and cooperation. There is also a tendency to standardize operational aspects, as philosophical firefighting methods once held sacred are reexamined.
A WORD OF CAUTION
Live-fire training is serious business; it is not something you can venture into haphazardly. Unfortunately, sometimes worthy intentions and ambitions can mask a lack of experience and knowledge. Don’t get caught in this trap! Sometimes it just isn’t possible for your organization to handle live-burn training. Unless your department can come up with the right structure; experienced, competent instructors; and the time and resolution to do a proper job—pass!
(Photo by author.)
It takes many hours of preparation to have an effective, safe burn. Do your homework!
- Make sure you have enough qualified instructors. Just because someone is elected or appointed chief or is regarded as a “certified instructor” doesn’t mean he or she is sufficiently experienced to handle live burns.
- Use NFPA 1403 as a starting point for your effort—it contains everything you’ll need to know. Also, don’t be afraid to be more extensive than the requirement when it comes to matters of safety. In certain respects we are much more stringent than 1403.
- Structures can make or break a session. Certain buildings are not as effective as others for live burns. Large barns or buildings with huge, unpartitioned areas are poor choices, since they are too wide open. Old frame houses with many rooms generally work well.
- If there is any question about a structure’s stability, bring in professional help. Often the municipal building inspector will examine a site as a courtesy to the host fire department.
- If you have an exposure to protect in proximity to your burn building, copious amounts of water usually do the trick. Remember, however, that commercial and residential buildings are made to keep the elements— not master stream applications—out. Hose streams undoubtedly will knock off roof shingles, break windows, tear siding apart, and leak through windows. The exposure structure may not burn, but there will be a good deal of damage done anyway.
- Set basic, attainable goals for your training efforts; remember, you are training in how to handle fire in frame
- buildings (oneand two-room fires), not for incidents involving large, commercial, factory-type, multistoried structures. Often, fire departments try to make conditions too real, i.e., setting a live fire in the structure and responding to it from their fire station (lights and sirens) and then stretching in hoselines to combat the fire. This is not a good idea; there are too many variables that can go wrong. Any delays (traffic, slow crew assembly, response delay, vague orders at the scene, and so forth) can mean loss of control. Fire can get out of hand, vehicle accidents can occur en route, so many things can happen with all too real results—legal implications!
- Always use charged hoselines in your live fire scenarios. Trying to lay in lines from a pumper, charging these lines to the right pressure—all take time, and delays can mean loss of control! Remember, you can practice hoselays at station or parking lot drills. Don’t do it at live-burn training. We always require that hoselines be prestretched and charged at any burn
- instruction with which we are involved-all firefighters have to do then is move in and put the fire out.
- Make it a practice to use only Class A fuel, even though 1403 permits limited use of fuel oil. Fuel oil gets all over the floor—you crawl, kneel, and walk in it. Class A fuel might take a little longer to start, but your control is a lot better. Remember to keep fuel dry — tarp it!
- Have enough participants. Crew fatigue develops quite rapidly, so to continue with quality operations, you need fresh troops. Schedule additional fire departments to arrive later in the day (noon) so as not to have participants at the scene for too many hours before they actually participate. Rest, hydrate, and feed your troops.
- If you can spread your live-burn training schedule to two weekends, do so. The more participants, the better. Most structures can be safely subjected to several burn dates, and spreading out the sessions makes it much easier on the instructors, making the entire event safer.