TRUCK COMPANY DRILLS AT ACQUIRED STRUCTURES
Photos by author.
In almost every fire district there are vacant structures about to be torn down to make way for development. Instead of allowing these buildings to wait for the wrecking ball, consider using them for a truck company operations drill. Ventilation, search and rescue, forcible entry, laddering, salvage, and overhaul are all training possibilities.
The fire service used to conduct “live burns” in available abandoned or vacant buildings. But today there are legitimate concerns about NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program requirements and NFPA 1403, Live Fire Training Evolutions in Structures requirements, as well as concerns about liability if something goes wrong. In light of these issues, it may be better to conduct your live burn exercises at a state or regional burn building specifically designed for that purpose.
Unlike engine company practice, which often can be obtained anywhere by hitting hydrants, stretching lines, and flowing water, truck company operations often require damaging or destroying something to gain experience. While simulations and videos serve a worthwhile purpose, there is no substitute for the real thing. Actual truck work done on acquired structures is an excellent way to give personnel experience in a safe learning environment.
You must obtain written permission from the building owner before you begin to prepare the structure for the drill. Do not rely on verbal agreements; be sure all parties understand and agree on what the condition of the building w ill be after the drill. Is it to be boarded up? Are the holes you make to be covered? Get all the details in writing. Work through the local municipality or fire marshal’s office to ensure that all necessary paperwork is completed. Have your local solicitor review this paperwork for accuracy and legality.
Advise the occupants of nearby houses or buildings of your upcoming drill and explain that it will be a training session only, that it will benefit everyone in the community, and that it will not threaten their safety or their property. Also assure them that the property will be boarded up or otherwise made safe afterward.
Before undertaking any training in the structure, you first must make it safe. Make a complete inspection of the surrounding property, checking for hazardous terrain such as deep holes in the ground and for debris at the perimeter of the building. Correct or cordon off all dangerous conditions so that they pose no threat to firefighters. Also make plans to keep curious neighbors at a safe distance during the training exercises by roping off the area or soliciting help from the police.
Next, inspect the interior of the structure and ensure that all utilities have been shut off. Remove or neutralize all potential hazards, such as debris or exposed nails. Check the structural integrity of the building (roof, stairways, floor, and walls) to be sure that it will hold up under the simultaneous work of several truck crews. Repair any holes in the floor, damaged steps, or other hazards. If you cannot make the structure safe, do not use it.
PLANNING THE DRILL
You must begin planning at least a month before the actual drill. Solicit the input of your firefighters: What training do they feel they need in truck company work?
Plan basic evolutions for the newer personnel and advanced evolutions for veterans. Give your rookies several chances to work with those who have had a lot of training and experience. One way to accomplish this is to have experienced personnel operate as crew leaders or evolution officers.
Determine exactly which truck company evolutions you want to run. Since you’re likely to have limited time to use the structure (perhaps one or two days), determine howmany evolutions to have. Unless limited by the size of the structure or your personnel level, you can run several evolutions simultaneously.
Besides planning the evolutions, you also must make provisions for the associated needs of your crews on the drill field. EMS must be present in case of injury to personnel, and water or juice drinks must be available for fluid replacement. Consider renting a portable toilet for the day, and make arrangements to have a light lunch brought to the drill site.
If you are going to drill with a mutual-aid company, be sure to include its members in the planning process. Lay down the ground rules (especially command and safety requirements) to avoid misunderstandings on drill day.
As part of the planning process, hold several company drills (time permitting) prior to the actual drill on the acquired structure. Your personnel must know the theory behind the techniques to be practiced and be competent in operating the equipment—especially power equipment. It is wise to double-check all your arrangements several days prior to the drill to help ensure that the exercise goes smoothly.
In addition to the suggestions above for making the building safe, having EMS on the scene, and providing rest and rehab logistics, there are a number of other things you must do to ensure the safety of all personnel.
Incident command system. Use an incident command system at the drill, just as you would at real incidents. Be sure to have only one officer in command (OIC). Use other officers for exterior or interior sectors as needed. Be sure that there is at least one officer or well-trained firefighter with every crew. For practicality, keep each crew leader’s span of control at no more than five; two to three is ideal. You may wish to reflect actual working levels. Ensure unity of command by having no one report to more than one officer or team leader.
Coordination is a critical safety factor. Make sure that the QIC has a tactical worksheet listing all of the stations. He or she should know where every evolution is taking place and the identity of the crew leader or the crew’s designation. Various crew identifiers may be used—for example, ventilation crew, search and rescue crew, interior sector, and so on.
Safety officer. You need a safety officer. This officer should “prowl” the area looking for hazardous conditions or acts. He or she must have the authority to stop an evolution should firefighter safety be compromised. The safety officer must make sure that no shortcuts or improper methods are used when performing the various truck company functions, especially when operating aboveground or when using power tools.
All personnel must wear protective clothing and equipment. If SCBA is not to be used at a particular station (due to potential fatigue among the crews, who may be rotating from station to station for much of the day), the safety officer should make sure that protective goggles are in place. Finally, he or she must check that the crews are rotated, given frequent breaks, and provided with plenty of water and other noncarbonated beverages.
CONDUCTING THE DRILL
Begin the drill by briefing all participants. If possible, use an overhead projector or other means to show the layout of the structure and the location of the various training stations. Explain the incident management system to be used, and identify the officers in charge. Be sure to explain all safety regulations and identify the safety officer.
Divide the participants into teams, each with an officer or experienced firefighter in charge. Give each team a portable radio for contacting the OIC or sector commanders. Communications and coordination are of paramount importance, just as at a fire scene.
Ladders. The first evolution can be the laddering of the structure at several points and, if applicable, at different levels. Have crews raise straight ladders, extension ladders, and roof ladders. Bring a small A-frame and attic ladders to the inside of the building. If practical and safe, an aerial ladder or ladder tower also may be used. Try to familiarize the firefighters with as many different ladders as possible and show them the best type of ladder for each job.
Forcible entry. If the doors and windows are intact, practice forcible entry techniques on them. First, try through-the-lock methods of forcing doors.
Use an A-tool, a K-tool, or vise grips to pull the lock cylinder. Then use the proper key tool to open the lock. Relock the door and use a halligan tool and flathead axe to force the door conventionally with the striking-andprying technique. Demonstrate the techniques for forcing various types of windows. If the building has a garage door, force it as well.
Have your newer firefighters practice the basic methods of forcible entry with each tool. Make sure your crews are in the habit of taking at least a flathead axe and a halligan tool with them to any structure to which they respond. Show them how to use them effectively.
Force entry through interior locked doors and breach walls from one room to another. Explain that this can be used by trapped firefighters to access areas of safety. Give your more experienced people the opportunity to practice advanced forcible entry’ techniques. Use rabbit tools and other hydraulic devices.
Search and rescue. After forcing entry, one or more teams can perform search and rescue operations. If more than one crew is operating, crews must maintain contact with each other. Portable radios are a must for all search and rescue evolutions. Crews also should enter with tag lines (bags of small-diameter rope about 200 feet long), hand lights, and forcible entry tools.
Simulated victims, placed at several locations throughout the structure, pose a challenge for the search and rescue crews. These “victims” can be made from old 2 1/2-inch hoseline or can be purchased. Be wary of using “live” victims, as you don’t want to increase the risk of accidental injury.
Emphasize primary and secondary search techniques. To make the evolutions more difficult and more realistic, use smoke-generating machines or cover facepieces with a material such as black plastic. In larger structures. practice large-area (team) search.
Horizontal ventilation. Be sure to use the structure for all the venting practice you can. Ventilate first through windows, doors, and other horizontal openings. Practice safe methods of breaking windows with axes and pike poles from the ground and while working off ladders.
Conduct evolutions using smoke ejectors and positive-pressure blowers. Describe how each of these forced ventilation methods works and explain the benefits and disadvantages of each. Instruct on how and when to use each method, and give a practical demonstration of each, possibly using artificially generated smoke.
Vertical ventilation. Roof ventilation with an axe is a basic skill and should be practiced even if SOPs call for venting with power equipment. You never know when a saw won’t start or when roof configurations will make the use of power equipment dangerous. One of the most valuable evolutions at a truck company drill on an acquired structure is vertical ventilation with power saws. Whether you use chain saws, circular saws, or both, it is imperative that personnel gain experience in using these devices. As power saws are extremely dangerous, make sure an instructor, officer, or experienced firefighter supervises every cut. Also be sure that no interior crews are operating directly below. As with ail roof evolutions, use roof ladders and have more than one way to get off the roof.
Salvage and overhaul. Don’t overlook the opportunity to practice salvage and overhaul techniques. Send crews in with salvage covers, hall runners, and other tarpaulins. Crews should cover ventilation holes and old furniture, if available, as they w’ould after a fire. Practice overhaul techniques by having the crews open the walls and ceilings to simulate a check for fire extension.
Fire scene scenarios. Once each firefighter has had the opportunity to function at each station at least once, make the drill more interesting with realistic truck company scenarios. Designate an officer in charge, set forth some strategic goals (for example. vent the roof and rescue trapped occupants on the second floor), and let the officer decide how to accomplish those goals (for example, send a vent crew to the roof and send a search crew to the second floor). Observe how the officer coordinates the crews and how the crews operate. Notice if the tasks are accomplished simultaneously. For example, one crew will raise ladders, ascend with power saws, and ventilate the roof while another crew forces entry and goes in for a primary search. This is an excellent way to build teamwork among your firefighters. Sending a crew in with a hoseline will mimic actual conditions.
During all phases of the drill, remember that you are trying to develop not only individual skills but the teamwork necessary to successfully operate at a fire scene. By shifting crews from one task to another, the participants see how all tasks need to be performed in a coordinated manner and how each operation fits into the “big” picture.
Hold an informal question-and-answer session before leaving the grounds of the acquired structure to reinforce the lessons learned during the evolutions and clear up any misunderstandings about the procedures and techniques used.
A formal critique should be held as soon as possible after the truck company drill. Be sure to invite the firefighters from the mutual-aid companies who participated. Emphasize the positive aspects of the drill while tactfully pointing out any errors in the techniques used. Reiterate that the drill was a learning experience for all.
Find out what the participants thought of the drill and what they learned. What evolutions did they find most valuable? How could the drill have been improved? What can you do better the next time? This can be accomplished orally or through an anonymous critique form. Use this as an opportunity to reinforce the lessons learned and the techniques employed at the drill. Stress that this drill was a controlled situation and that a fire would present a much more dangerous and confusing situation. Challenge your firefighters to improve their skills and abilities. Get them to use the drill as a starting point—one on which they can build.