Training in Acquired Buildings: The Department’s Roles

BY FRANK VISCUSO

As a key component of America’s first line of defense, today’s fire service faces many challenges. Since 9/11, fire departments across the country have had to shift their thinking and continuously train in specialty areas such as technical rescue and mass decontamination. As a result, many departments often get away from the area that should be among its primary focuses, structural firefighting training. One way to get back to the basics is to find and legally acquire abandoned buildings in your area that can be used for a variety of training evolutions.

Firefighters can only learn so much by reading textbooks. Hands-on training presents an opportunity for firefighters to physically practice techniques and sharpen their skills. Reading about vertical ventilation and the best way to cut a hole in a roof is vastly different from pulling up to a training ground, positioning your apparatus, testing to make sure the saw will start, spotting and raising a ladder to the roof, climbing up, testing the roof, starting the saw again, and making the cut. This is the type of training you can do only at fire academies or in legally secured abandoned structures that are scheduled for demolition.

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Some of the training evolutions our department has conducted in acquired buildings include the following: (1) breaching walls (self-rescue techniques), (Photos by author.)

Once you obtain such a building, you’ll have the opportunity to conduct hands-on drills on a variety of topics, including vertical and horizontal ventilation; forcible entry; breaching walls; search and rescue; emergency bailout; firefighter rescue techniques; and, in some cases, flowing water. Having the opportunity to conduct these types of drills in a structure that you can “take apart” is priceless.

When a building is being constructed in your municipality, all tours in your department should conduct some form of in-service inspection, construction, or preplan drill. Construction codes today, however, are much different from what they were 20 years ago. With that in mind, consider that most of the older structures you protect may present challenges to your firefighters that they don’t often get to see at today’s construction sites. The first one that comes to mind is balloon-frame construction. Drilling in older abandoned structures that are scheduled for demolition also offers a rare opportunity to open some walls and ceilings to get a first-hand look at the construction in your community.

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(2) building construction,

Obviously, not all abandoned structures are scheduled for demolition. You may have an unoccupied warehouse in your area that the owner would gladly allow the fire department to use for a search rope or line advancement drill. Don’t pass up the opportunity to do so. If you don’t have access to a local training academy, this can be a great way for your firefighters to train in an unfamiliar building without having to leave their district. Be sure to treat such properties with care, and conduct only drills that will not damage the building. There have been instances where firefighters have scuffed up tile floors from dragging hose and dummies and had to come back to clean and repair the site.

 

FINDING BUILDINGS

 

Consider individuals or organizations within your community that may own and have access to structures that are going to be knocked down. Reach out to your building inspector or local contractors or investors. Inform them that your department is seeking structures for training, and ask if they have any available. Officers and training division personnel should develop working relationships with these people. You’ll be surprised at how many people are willing to work with their local fire department. If you don’t have any leads, talk with your department head or governing body about placing an ad in a newspaper stating that the fire department is looking for buildings scheduled for demolition to use for training purposes. Ask the police department to help you find them as well. They may also find value in training in these structures, especially if they have special units like a SWAT team. These structures are out there; you just have to let people know you are looking for them.

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(3) vertical ventilation,

 

Legal Requirements

 

Once you locate one, get permission in writing and take all required legal actions before setting foot on the property. Although a contractor or property owner may want to work with the local fire department, he also doesn’t want to risk being sued if an injury occurs on his property. I am not an attorney, and I cannot tell you what your state, municipality, or department would require, but our department uses a very simple standard consent form drafted by our town attorney. The document is titled “Grant of Right to Use Premises for Fire Department Training.” The document states that an agreement has been made among the property owner, the fire department, and the municipality to use the property for training. It also explains that the licensee (the fire department) will not claim any damages against the licensor (the property owner). We make sure all parties involved have signed and received copies of the completed document and of our certificate of insurance before we proceed any further. Again, I encourage you to consult with your organization’s legal representative to draft a legal form granting permission to use these types of properties. A sample release form can be found in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions (2007 edition, page 27).

 

Owners’ Conditions

 

Prior to training, meet with the owners and discuss specific instructions they may have relative to any parts of the building that have salvage value or that they do not want to be damaged during the training. The owner of one home we acquired asked us to keep the stained glass windows intact so he could remove and reuse them. Some demolition companies often bid their services based on the salvage value of doors, windows, fixtures, and so on. There may also be landscape preservation issues. At one site, we had no choice but to place foot ladders in the middle of bushes to raise them to the second-floor window. By the end of the day, the bushes were destroyed. Luckily, the owners did not intend to salvage them; otherwise, we would have had some explaining to do, since we received permission to train only inside the structure. This was clearly an oversight on our part. Make sure you discuss salvage issues with the owners and that everyone is on the same page before you begin.

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(4) roof operations (warehouse, trench cut),

I first began acquiring these structures for our department 10 years ago. The first one was the most difficult, but it was well worth the effort. Today, we’re at the point where contractors call us when they acquire buildings asking if we’d like to train in them before they knock them down or renovate them. We simply print out the above referenced document for them to sign, granting us permission to train, and we review a variety of past lesson plans on topics ranging from roof operations to basement fires. This makes it easy for us to adapt an old program and begin training within one week of receiving the call.

 

LESSON PLANS

 

If you want to get the most out of a training evolution, don’t begin on the training ground until you end on paper—in other words, write up a brief one-page lesson plan describing what type of drill you plan to conduct, and state your goals and objectives. This could be as simple as the following statement.

Drill topic: Breaching walls.

Goal: To have each member breach a hole in the wall with an ax and/or halligan.

Objective: To provide firefighters with an opportunity to practice the skills for self-rescue and evacuation.

Then, develop a list of safety precautions to implement prior to beginning a drill. They can include things like checking the stairs and inspecting the building for stability; making sure there are no wild animals or hazardous materials inside the structure; checking for mold, asbestos, and other environmental hazards; cleaning up debris; and ensuring there are no hanging wires and broken glass lying around. You can find a sample checklist in NFPA 1403 (2007 edition, pages 27-28). The checklist also includes sections on Permits, Documents, Notifications, Insurance, Building Preparation, Course Instructor, and Safety Officer. Obviously, the live-burn portion of the standard would not apply, but the preparation section covers essential reminders on what predrill steps to take and how to properly evaluate potential site hazards. Also specify who will be conducting the drill, the instructor’s credentials, and who will be assigned as the safety officer. Once this is complete, it would be beneficial to send a notice informing members of the upcoming drill. In the notice, describe the techniques that will be used and in which book or standard operating procedure (SOP) the firefighters can review those techniques. This will give officers and firefighters a chance to read up on the subject and come to the training site better prepared.

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(5) emergency bailout (two-story apartment), and

Prior to beginning the drill, have each participant sign and date a designated drill sign-in sheet. Designate a binder to hold any lesson plans, permission forms, and sign-in sheets for training conducted in abandoned buildings. This will help with documentation and organization. Also, conduct a walk-through of the structure, and cover important safety tips prior to beginning. Secure and clearly mark any areas deemed unsafe, and instructors should make it clear that firefighters are to stay away from those areas.

Confirm that the utilities have been shut and removed in an abandoned structure scheduled for demolition weeks before training begins. Give each group a chance to train before you tear up the building. Be sure to save the destructive drills for later. Have a search and rescue drill before you start breaching walls and cutting holes in the roof.

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(6) rescue operations (ladder carry).

When training is complete, make sure the firefighters clean up the area to resecure the building so that squatters cannot gain access. If your department uses a marking system to alert emergency service personnel of an abandoned structure, be sure to follow your department’s SOPs. After it’s all said and done, your members will have an opportunity to train in areas in which they usually would not be able to practice until an incident occurs. This is a good time to bring them together and critique the exercises so you can discuss what you learned and determine the best way to accomplish the tasks when that time comes.

FRANK VISCUSO is an 18-year veteran of the Kearny (NJ) Fire Department and a New Jersey-certified level 2 fire instructor. He is the author of Common Valor: True Stories from New Jersey’s Bravest.

 

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