Who Is to Blame?
The three caskets holding the bodies of Oakland County, Mich., firefighters were carried on separate fire trucks. About 3,000 firefighters attended the service honoring Marsha Baczynski, Robert Gregory, and Thomas Phelps. The three volunteers died early on a Sunday morning in October when fire burst out of control in a century-old farmhouse, trapping them on the second floor.
The fire, as most of us know by now, was a training exercise—a “practice fire” set with flammable liquids. It exploded out of control seconds after ignition—so fast there was nothing exterior teams could do.
Horror and frustration showed on the faces of all who heard the story. The newspapers and political factions were quick to blame. Names and accusations glared out of the front-page stories of the Michigan press. Shocked, saddened, and scared volunteer members already burdened with doubt were blamed further by Monday-morning investigators.
The reports contain evidence of a lack of training-fire basics and safety concerns among the on-scene decision-makers. Insufficiencies in laddering, the use of precautionary charged hose lines, communication, and control of personnel, as well as indiscriminate use of accelerants, all seem to have played a significant part in the disaster.
Live fire training has its value, and NFPA 1403, “Live Fire Training Involutions in Structures,” sets many of the guidelines to try to put safety into a risky situation. It doesn’t appear that many of these techniques were used that Sunday morning, as link after link was added to the chain of disaster. We train to learn basics, but missing here were the awareness and coordination of and instruction in the basics of training itself.
This is true on more than the local level. With all the safeguards in place, we are still trying to accomplish our objectives with mirrors. Safe and effective training takes money, too. I watched as the Michigan State Framing Council was told that the $15 million allocated for training had been shaved down, until the final amount turned over was $651,000. It seems diabolical that some of those now fingering the blame may have had a part in cutting the annual training budget to a sum that would have a tough time making a scratch in the problem.
Ihere is indeed a wider range within which to lay blame. Still, though, the bottom line is that, since 1977, we have lost 36 firefighters in training incidents. When are we going to learn from each other? Burning down piece-of-junk “chicken coops” with live firefighters operating inside to learn sketchy lessons is not a positive operation worth the risk.
I raining is one of the few situations we can control, and live fire training must be the most controlled of all.