LIVE-BURN FIRE TRAINING

Remember when you were a kid and your parents had all these “stupid” rules you had to follow? You’d ask, “Why do I have to be in the house when the street lights come on?” or “I know how to swim; why do I have to wear a life jacket when I’m in the boat?” They would simply look at us and say something like, “It’s for your own good!” or (the one everyone hates) “Because I said so!”

Then, it didn’t make a lot of sense, but you look at things differently when you are an adult and wiser. Well, with our childlike mindset as firefighters, we sometimes question rules and mandates established by the administration or federal, state, or local laws and regulations.

One such mandate is National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1403, Standard on Live-Fire Training Evolutions. You’d think firefighters would know how to safely burn houses and other acquired structures for training purposes. We see story after story and video clip after video clip of firefighters not following standards; some involve injuries that occurred during live-fire training. As hard as it is to swallow and as much of a pain as it is to follow, as mom would say, “It’s for your own good!” Again and again, we prove to be our own worst enemy. The quotation goes, “The essence of training is to err without consequence.” We can’t afford to make errors that have “consequences” on the actual fireground, let alone on the training ground. NFPA 1403 helps to eliminate a lot of those errors.

John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), a technical editor of Fire Engineering, and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.

Question: Does your department participate in live-fire training? Is the training NFPA 1403-compliant? Has it ever resulted in injuries?

Thomas Dunne, deputy chief,
Fire Department of New York

Response: Our department uses propane-fed simulators to teach basic firefighting skills. New recruits gain experience in nozzle operation, SCBA use, and ventilation techniques, all within the relatively safe confines of a controlled-fire situation. To my knowledge, we have never had a serious injury.

There is, of course, nothing quite like fighting a “real” uncontrolled fire in a structure, and it takes quite a few fires for an individual to develop physical skills along with the ability to visually recognize important fire clues. However, we do not acquire vacant buildings for live-fire training in our city. Even if we could, I would have some serious reservations. Most obvious would be the safety factor. According to the NFPA, 14 firefighters died from live-burn training incidents in the past 10 years (one training officer was even convicted of negligent homicide).

In addition, there is the possibility, particularly in a low fire-incidence area, that a live burn will become too much of an “event” in itself: More people might be more interested in getting a piece of the fire than in learning.

It takes a number of years to become a safe and effective firefighter. I think a strong argument can be made for teaching recruits basic techniques in controlled fire simulators followed by a gradual learning process consisting of responding to actual structural fires and working under the guidance of experienced officers.

Jeffrey Schwering, lieutenant,
Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services

Response: My department participates in live-fire training when the opportunity is there. In view of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules, we use vacant houses most often for practicing basic fireground skills like hoseline advancement, roof ventilation, and RIT. When the opportunity for a live burn presents itself, multiple area departments participate.

We strictly adhere to and enforce NFPA 1403-no exceptions. The standard is followed to the letter, to ensure the safety of all members involved, regardless of the agency.

After doing some research, I have found that no members of our department have sustained an injury in live-fire training in more than 15 years. This says a lot for the mindset of our members and officers. Even though our track record is good, we must continue to educate and train ourselves to prevent injuries to our members whether in training or on the fireground.

Mike Mason, lieutenant,
Downers Grove (IL) Fire Department

Response: Live-fire training involving fixed and acquired structures is a constant challenge in our area because of many varied circumstances. Acquiring a structure in this densely populated area just outside of Chicago might happen once a year at best. Add to that the timing, complexities, and paperwork involved in coordinating with building owners, EPA requirements, new building contractors, and donors’ schedules. Sometimes, it is almost impossible for our Training Division to conduct thorough, productive, and strategic multicompany live-fire operations.

In our area, many structures have to be removed within 30 to 60 days by the owners who have acquired these properties so they can build new structures as soon as possible. A 60-day window for a tear-down in many circumstances does not even allow for the time it takes our regulatory agencies to file the paperwork and obtain the approvals to plan and conduct a burn before the wrecking crews arrive on our heels. That being said, about once a year, we get all the ducks in a row and successfully conduct a training burn.

Many in our Training Division have begun to look at and conduct live burns with a more stringent attitude because of the many unnecessary firefighter injuries and fatalities over the past few years. We regulate and conduct our live-fire training within the context of NFPA 1403. Live burns are invaluable for developing a firefighter’s attitude and skills in fire suppression activities. When you can help firefighters to experience heat, smoke, and flame fronts in a training environment, you have given them a dose of reality. Unfortunately, using acquired structures and real fire presents many risks. The tragedies that can happen at a real fire can definitely happen at your acquired-structure training fire. With NFPA 1403, we can limit the risks. It is very important for training officers and instructors involved in live-fire training exercises to be thoroughly versed in this minimum standard.

A fire in a burn building or fire tower and one in an acquired structure are entirely different. The building/tower fire is of concrete construction, which allows for better controlled fire behavior; a fire in an acquired structure can be totally unpredictable if not properly prepared for and planned. Burning an acquired structure is a very serious matter and should not be taken lightly or entered into without an understanding of the risks involved. The acquired structure delivers some extreme realities in experiencing the heat, smoke, and combat of fighting fires. If you don’t understand fire behavior and building construction, you have no business conducting these events. We must minimize the potential for injury and death.

With the enactment of NFPA 1403, we at least have a document or plan that stipulates minimum requirements for training our members under live-fire conditions. Even with NFPA 1403, a growing number of departments have reduced or completely eliminated the use of acquired structures for live-fire training. There are many reasons for this, including the liability that is incurred when firefighters are injured or killed. Once you have a structure, you need to provide for the highest levels of safety, thorough and appropriate planning, and a good incident command system.

A significant challenge related to live-fire training deals is the experience of the officers and firefighters involved in the exercises. The number of fire responses has greatly diminished over the past 20 years. Many of the firefighters and officers experienced in live-fire response have been retiring from the fire service, leaving young officers with little experience in recognizing fire behavior principles such as flashover and potential building collapse. They also may not be able to react quickly enough to prevent potentially fatal conditions from developing when conducting live-fire exercises.

Live-fire training involves a dynamic environment that presents extreme hazards and risks to firefighters. Safety and adequate supervision must be uppermost in your mind.

Ron Hiraki, assistant chief,
Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One

Response: We conduct live-fire training that complies with NFPA 1403. Knock on wood, there have been no injuries.

We regularly use the burn tower (Class A material) at the State Fire Service Training Academy. The 60-mile trip is an additional challenge, but the training is necessary and valuable. Although this live-fire training is in a controlled setting, we can still teach many important firefighting practices. Despite the logistics and the limitations, the consistency of being able to use this facility is important.

Whenever possible, we conduct live-fire training in an acquired structure. The challenge here is to get all of the needs of the property owner, fire department, and regulatory agencies aligned at the same time. When we are able to make this happen, we train on coordinating the efforts of the various firefighting teams-forcible entry, fire rolling across the ceiling, flashover, ventilation, opening up walls, and pulling ceilings.

We have a vision of constructing a modern training tower with live-fire props fueled by natural gas. This system adds an element of realism to firefighter training. Even with such a system in place, we would still continue to use the state burn tower and acquired structures for live-fire training. This diversity in training strengthens our program.

Christopher J. Weir,
EFO, division chief,
Port Orange (FL) Department of Fire & Rescue

Response: Our department has not participated in live-fire training in the past year. However, we continually use our training tower and any buildings scheduled for demolition donated to us for training primarily for high-rise procedures, forcible entry techniques, ventilation practices, and search and rescue (we use smoke machines).

“Live-fire” multiple-agency exercises are conducted in a certified burn building at the county training academy under the auspices of certified training and safety officers, in accordance with NFPA 1403 standards. During each drill or exercise, we continually incorporate safety into every aspect to ensure the buildings are structurally sound and set up in a way so that we can monitor the progress of our personnel conducting interior drills. With NFPA 1403 and the State of Florida Bureau of Fire Training and Standard mandates, there is no excuse for losing a firefighter or a trainee in a controlled exercise.

Gary Seidel, chief,
Sam Phillips, training chief,
Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department

Response: Our department acquires structures for live-fire training exercises. We have a stringent set of legal and environmental procedures for the public to follow when submitting a structure for live-fire training. In addition, we charge a fee based on the size and type of structure. Once the paperwork is completed and authenticated, the occupancy to be burned is assigned to a member from the shift selected to conduct the training. That member must complete the Incident Action Plan (IAP) for the live-fire training. This IAP ensures we stay 100 percent compliant with NFPA 1403 standards. On the average, we conduct one or two live-fire training exercises each month from October through June. We do not burn during the months for which the county has instituted a burn ban, usually June/July to September.

Since we have strictly adopted the NFPA 1403 standards (approximately two years ago), we have had no reported injuries from our live-fire training exercises. We have also noticed that by using a variety of acquired structures for live-fire training, our personnel are exposed to a more realistic fire environment than when in a fire training tower.

Craig H. Shelley, EFO, CFO, MIFireE,
fire protection advisor,
Advanced Fire Training Center,
Saudi Aramaco Fire Protection

Response: Our fire department has recently inaugurated a new fire training center, which has been ranked as one of the top industrial fire training facilities in the world. Although it is primarily an industrial fire department, NFPA 600, Standard on Industrial Fire Brigades, and NFPA 1081, Standard for Industrial Fire Brigade Member Professional Qualifications, have provisions for some industrial firefighters to be trained to operate as structural firefighters. To this end, our training facility is also equipped to train structural firefighters in a structure that contains residential, commercial, and high-rise areas.

In addition, we also train marine and offshore personnel in their required firefighting skills. While marine structures are not applicable to NFPA 1403, we do, however, follow the guidelines as indicated above. Our live-fire training follows NFPA 1403 where applicable, and strict policies and procedures have been adopted to meet compliance.

Our facility was designed using NFPA 1402, Guide to Building Fire Service Training Centers, as a guide. Having served on the NFPA Technical Committee on Fire Service Training, I can attest to the diligence that went into developing and conforming to NFPA 1403. It is a shame that many of the revisions and additions are the direct result of firefighter injuries during training activities. Even with the standard in place, we still kill firefighters and instructors during training. We all have been empowered to act as safety officers within our departments. When unsafe acts are observed during operations or training, we must correct them and adhere to the standards.

Bobby Shelton, firefighter,
Cincinnati (OH) Fire Department

Response: I am a firm believer in live-fire training. Unless you are exposed to the rigors of “the job” under a controlled setting, you can’t really be prepared for that first fire.

We use live-fire training as an educational and preparatory tool. In the past, we had our own burn building, which is no longer in service because of its age. We are using the Colerain Twp. Fire Rescue Department burn building; this has worked well for us.

In adopting NFPA 1403, we are definitely going in the right direction. Anything we do to ensure firefighter safety is a positive move. Over the years, the nation has lost good people in training evolutions because we have not had a standard or it was ignored.

To my knowledge, we have had only some minor injuries to instructors during live-fire training. No recruit injuries have been reported. The important thing to remember is that if NFPA 1403 is strictly observed, no one, instructor or recruit, should ever get injured. The reality is that things outside our control do happen and we cannot prepare for every contingency. But why tempt fate by not doing everything we can in as safe a manner as possible?

Firefighting is full of unexpected dangers. Our training should not unnecessarily expose us to harm. That means that training should not melt shields or helmets. Training should not be done without a backup line and a hose team at the ready. Training should not be carried on without a RIT, and so on. Anytime we do live-fire training without these controls in place, we do a disservice to our trainees, our instructors, our firefighters and their families, and ultimately the municipalities and citizens we are sworn to serve and protect.

Live-fire training is beneficial and necessary for the betterment of fire departments-but only if standards and controls are in place to take care of us.

Elias “Buck” Tomlinson,
state fire marshal,
Bureau of Fire Standards and Training,
Ocala, Florida

Response: Because of three firefighter fatalities that occurred in Florida during live-fire training exercises, Florida now has a law that stipulates that departments conducting this type of training must comply with almost all of NFPA 1403.

Ed Federkeil, battalion chief,
Broward County (FL) Sheriff’s Office, Fire Rescue Division

Response: My department has always participated in live-fire training, although we have seen significant changes in how we deliver it over the years to make it as safe as possible.

As most departments, we started with acquired structures. After our fire academy was built, we used a concrete burn building that used class A combustibles to generate heat and smoke. After years of burning inside the concrete structure, it became damaged and was taken out of service. The only injuries I recall were minor thermal burns from kneeling on the hot concrete or areas not covered properly by gear.

The academy has built and now operates a state-of-the-art computerized live-fire simulator that has numerous safety features built into it. The structure uses LP gas and has an emergency shutdown system that allows the operation to be shut down from the control center or outside of each room. When the emergency shutdown is activated, it immediately shuts off the fire and the LP to the building, turns on the lights, and evacuates the smoke.

The State of Florida follows NFPA 1403 and has taken it a step further by enacting legislation that requires additional training and certification above the normal fire instructor certification. After the death of two Florida firefighters during a live burn, the Mickel/Begg Act, signed by Governor Jeb Bush on June 1, 2005, mandates that after January 1, 2007, the instructor in charge or the safety officer at any live-fire training exercise must have the state’s 40-hour Live-Fire Training instructor certification. All other adjunct instructors must have a 16-hour certification to be able to work in this environment.

These improvements were made to ensure the safest possible experience for the student.

Henry Apfelbach, sergeant,
South Walton Fire District,
Santa Rosa Beach, Florida

Response: My department has not done a tremendous amount of live-fire training. Part of the problem is getting a suitable structure. Another reason is the number of hours of work that go into prepping the structure. The burns our department has conducted have not been NFPA 1403-compliant. I don’t think this was intentional; there are so many rules that the people in charge of the training were not able to stay abreast of this standard. I have always said that ignorance is no excuse, but it is going to take a full-time position to stay on top of training regulations. I think the live-fire training class at FDIC is a great tool for smaller departments that cannot afford a full-time training position.

Brian M. Halwachs, assistant chief,
French Village Fire Department,
Fairview Heights, Illinois

Response: As the training officer, I use every NFPA standard I can, including 1403. I also use 1410, Standard on Training for Initial Emergency Scene Operations, as a benchmark for the members, and they consistently beat the benchmark times while also using all safety protocols. In my earlier years in the fire service, I went to several live burns that were serious near misses. With the advent of 1403, there is a standardized procedure to follow every time. This makes the training beneficial and consistent. It helps to eliminate problems with obtaining permits and clearances; reduces the chance for a near-miss; and helps to make this a profession, not just a job.

Paul D. Hoyle,
lieutenant/assistant training officer,
Portsmouth (VA) Fire,
Rescue & Emergency Services

Response: We use live-fire training on a regular basis. We are fully compliant with NFPA 1403 and require our lead instructors for all burns to meet Virginia certification requirements as a 1403 compliance officer as well as fire instructor II. We have had a few minor nonfire-related injuries such as trips and falls; none have required hospitalization or involved time lost at work. No injuries have been attributed directly to burn activities.

Jim Grady III, chief,
Frankfort (IL) Fire District

Response: We do live-fire training in compliance with NFPA 1403 and also follow recommendations from our insurance company (VFIS).

We have been fortunate; no injuries have resulted. I am very proud of our training team and its follow-through. We took far too many chances years ago. Today, our philosophy is more toward recognizing the signs of flashover and conducting truck and rescue company operations at structures we obtain.

We try to use recognized training towers like the one at the Illinois Fire Service Institute, the Tinley Park Volunteer Fire Department tower, or the Orland Fire Department Training Tower for live burns and engine company operations.

Mitch Brooks, lieutenant,
Columbus (OH) Division of Fire

Response: We participate in live-fire training and follow NFPA 1403. To my knowledge, we have not had any injuries. We have our officer candidates attend an officer candidate school. Part of this six-week school deals with NFPA 1403, and each class ends with a live burn.

Brian Singles, firefighter,
Hampton (VA) Fire Department

Response: We participate in live-fire training at all levels of experience-from the basic firefighter recruit school; to volunteer and career Firefighter I, II, III; all the way to company in-service training for the veterans. All live-fire training is in compliance with NFPA 1403 and is well planned and coordinated through the training bureau by instructors with various levels of experience and knowledge within the department, including adjunct instructors who normally work in the fire stations. In the 24 years I have been in the department, I can’t recall anyone’s being seriously injured during a live burn. There was minor redness on the shoulders of some participants and even on parts of the face and neck area because of not being fully covered by the flash hood.

I recently have taken an instructor’s upgrade class within the department; our homework assignment was to put together a mock Firefighter I and II class for an imaginary volunteer fire company. Each student had to coordinate all aspects of the class from start to finish, which included contacting all of the instructors and assigning them individual class modules to teach, having each student fill out the proper fire training forms completely and correctly, and evaluating the instructors at the end of each session.

I have been in the suppression forces my entire career; after completing this homework assignment, I had a whole new respect for those folks in the training division. All of the preparation and the red tape they have to go through just to acquire a building, have the proper permits, and get the proper number of instructors and safety personnel to have a live burn is very tedious. Kudos to all in the training division, the adjunct instructors, and the battalion chief in charge.

Eric Dreiman, lieutenant,
safety/training officer,
Washington Township (IN) Fire Department

Response: Our Training Division consistently follows NFPA 1403. With the support and endorsement of our chief and administrative staff, we have been able to provide live-fire training in acquired structures and in fixed burn facilities. We provide live-fire and flashover training for our recruit firefighters attending the fire academy and for our incumbent firefighters as part of their continuing education and training. We have logged well over 1,000 hours of live-fire training in the past six years with no significant injuries to instructors or participants. NFPA 1403 is a very important tool that needs to be used when conducting live-fire training. I have heard and read comments from other firefighters who do not feel that the training is as good when NFPA 1403 is followed, but I can assure you that if the training is conducted in a straightforward and professional manner by competent and well-versed instructors, the training will be worthwhile and very realistic. NFPA 1403 will never completely remove the danger from live-fire training, but it limits the danger and enables you to manage problems, should they occur, with minimal risk to personnel.

Stan Mettinger Jr., captain,
shift commander/training officer,
Brooksville (FL) Fire Department

Response: My former department in Virginia did live-fire training and had been using 1403 for acquired structures for quite some time when I left there in 1998. However, the trend seemed to be to move away from using these structures because of the liability-the old “risk vs. benefit” approach. We had taken it a step further and were also using the standard for live-fire training at the fire academy’s burn building. A normal burn day usually entailed the use of 15 or more instructors, four engines, and at least one EMS (nonparticipants) unit. The county I volunteered in was also using 1403 for acquired structures as well as the training center. In fact, most places required it.

In Florida, the State Legislation has adopted 1403 as part of the Administrative Code (69-A) and made it a requirement tied into Florida OSHA. In fact, currently, to do live-burn training in Florida, the instructors must have completed a “Live Burn Train-the-Trainer” course approved by the Florida State Fire College. Prior to that, my current department was using 1403; but because of our size, the only way we could meet it was to involve other departments in surrounding jurisdictions.

Additionally, the costs associated with site preparation and meeting all the ordinances as well as liability caused the chief to shy away from using acquired buildings even for training purposes. He agreed only to dispose of old buildings that posed a hazard, and they were simply allowed to burn with no intervention from us except to protect exposures.

In my old department, there may have been a few injuries associated with these exercises, but none as a result of any unsafe or hazardous acts. The injuries were related to falls or steam burns and, in one case, blunt trauma (a coupling blew off the pump). As far as I know, my current department has had no injuries related to live-training exercises.

David Hitt, captain of training,
Toledo (OH) Fire Department

Response: Our live-fire training is progressive: It starts with a class on fire behavior using the Essentials of Firefighting, Fourth Edition, outline for firefighters. This course includes a lecture, followed by a live burn in the burn building, where recruits get to observe the different stages of fire.

The next live-burn training is a Fire Control Class in which skills and information related to initial attack for fire extinguishment are taught. A second live-burn session provides the fire recruits the opportunity to demonstrate proper techniques of fire extinguishment.

The final live burn is based on NFPA 1403. It is in an acquired wood-frame residential structure. Students use all the skills and knowledge attained from the previous two live-burn training sessions.

The structures used for live-burn training are from the Toledo Department of Neighborhood’s demolition list. These structures have been inspected and have had all hazards removed-all utilities are disconnected, and they are checked for structural stability and inspected for lead paint and asbestos. Finally, a proper ventilation opening is established before each burn. All other sections of 1403 are followed during the burn, including the use of the incident command system and safety officers.

Roger A. McGary, chief,
Silver Spring (MD) Fire Department

Response: As the safety officer for Montgomery County, Maryland, I was responsible for 1403 acquired structure burns conducted under Fire and Rescue Commission policy and stringent standard operating procedures. We had very few injuries; most were of the sprain and strain type. To keep injuries to a minimum, the safety section developed a 1403 manual. Anyone in the organization wanting to conduct a live-fire drill had to contact the safety section and obtain a manual. This alerted Safety to the plan for a burn, and a burn supervisor was assigned as a guide to prepare the structure.

The manual requires a preliminary walkthrough by a member of the safety staff, who uses a checklist (in the manual) to determine what must be done to make the structure safe to burn. As others will attest, you literally burn your money up in this process! As the supervisor prepares the structure to comply with 1403 requirements, other requirements in the manual must be met, including providing verification that the insurance is terminated, obtaining permission from the owner to do the burn, ensuring that utilities were removed and that the water supply is adequate. In addition, the supervisor must provide a lesson plan for each burn to take place. The lesson plan must include identification of alternate water supplies, the goal of the burn, the safety teams provided, and other information.

Once the manual is completed, it is submitted to the safety section for review prior to the burn. The property must be inspected again to determine that all requirements have been met. Finally, a member of the safety office is assigned to the burn to ensure that the burns are conducted as submitted.

Rick Lasky, chief,
Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

Response: Our department participates in live-fire training. We attempt to have our members participate in an evolution three to four times per year. The evolutions can range from scenario-based (one-alarm responses) to individual skills-building drills (hose work, search and rescue, ventilation, fire behavior) to flashover. These events are conducted at our department’s training facility.

Our personnel are trained to conduct these drills and must follow strict rules. Anyone from an outside agency wanting to use our facility has to hire our instructional staff to conduct the drill or have their lead personnel (who must be present and conduct the drill) attend a training session (classroom and hands-on) provided by our training division. The session includes NFPA 1403, our rules, setup, and cleanup, among other issues. Additional information on our program and a copy of the guidelines can be obtained from Division Chief Scott Thompson at sthompson@cityoflewisville.com.

The building and site are approved as a training facility by the Texas Commission on Fire Protection. The rooms and building are protected, and the instructors are issued a set of turnout gear for instructional purposes so they do not have to use their front-line gear. The burn pans are designed to hold only two pallets so that the fires cannot be built beyond the scope of what is approved in our guidelines.

Anyone outside our department approved to conduct training at this facility has to follow our rules; part of the fee they pay for using the facility covers the cost of having one of our approved instructors serve in the capacity of “facility supervisor” during the training. The instructor’s only responsibility is to make sure that the rules are followed.

There used to be a time (and it should be “used to be”) when some firefighters and instructors felt that they had to have a burned or melted helmet to look the role. Often, such a helmet is an indication that the fire is too hot. If you’re melting helmets and damaging your PPE, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re not following NFPA 1403 and then some to ensure everyone’s safety, you’re an accident waiting to happen. I know pallets and straw are not normally found in buildings in which we fight fires; but, if done properly, these evolutions can work well. I have conducted these types of drills for years in training facilities and acquired structures, and they provided an invaluable learning experience for the students. We were very serious about following the rules.

Such a burn may not reflect the exact atmosphere we often face in a real-life fire, but it helps to build a firefighter’s skills for when operating at the “real” thing. The firefighter should be told that each fire presents a different set of circumstances and that if the fire is hot enough to burn and melt your helmet, you need to be backing out and changing your tactics.

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