Live Burns: Maximizing Safety

BY MICHAEL KINKADE

In the summer of 2007, a small Oregon fire district conducted a training burn in an acquired structure in a rural area outside the city limits. This rural department serves a small community with approximately 35 volunteer firefighters and one paid, part-time chief. The incident commander (IC) of this training event was a volunteer officer with this department and also an experienced career firefighter from a larger neighboring jurisdiction.

The area in which the acquired structure was located had no water supply. It was a two-story farmhouse with approximately 1,500 square feet of living space and was of the typical wood-frame construction found in Oregon houses built in the 1930s. A water tender and portable water tanks were used to provide the water supply for this exercise. A morning safety briefing was held, and the training started immediately after.

THE SCENARIO AND NEAR MISSES

The department’s training officer, in an attempt to control fire spread, had cut a hole in the floor of the second-floor bedroom to facilitate fire extension in this section of the building. This was done to control how the building would be consumed. The theory was that the hole would create a chimney, allowing the fire to spread rapidly and consume that side of the building faster. This was desirable because of a nearby exposure (a neighbor’s house) on the opposite side. This room was reserved for the last fire set, and the day’s training continued with seven different fire ignitions. Department members received training in fire behavior, suppression tactics, and advancing hoselines.

Two firefighters were assigned as igniters for the event. According to the IC, they used “a mixture of gasoline and diesel, which was probably a little too rich with gasoline” to ignite the fires. Class A combustible materials (hay, pallets, and cardboard) were used in each of the room sets. During the last ignition, both of the igniters proceeded to the downstairs bedroom and ignited the fire with the flammable liquids in their drip torches. They did not know that the training officer had come into the structure behind them and had proceeded upstairs. He planned to observe the fire extension through his self-designed chimney and confirm that the fire behaved as he had predicted and desired.

As the heat and smoke intensity levels rapidly increased, the two igniters began to back out of the building. The smoke was now at knee level, and one of the igniters, realizing that this was the last ignition, decided to consume the remaining fuel in his drip torch by throwing its contents into the already fully involved bedroom. At about this time, the training officer came down the stairs and noticed that he could no longer see the exit because of the smoke conditions. The exit was less than 12 feet from the bottom of the stairway.

The resulting flash and increase in fire intensity from the addition of flammable liquids immediately drove the two igniters back to the front doorway. They were seen leaving the building barely ahead of a large fireball that engulfed the area behind them. The IC, aware that the training officer was still in the building, immediately called for hose teams to knock down the fire, but before they could be deployed, the training officer made a dash for where he believed the exit was. The IC observed his diving out the front door, emerging from the fully involved room, completely surrounded by flames. Fortunately, no one was injured in this event, but the IC was quoted as saying, “We are lucky we didn’t kill one or two people that day.”

ENSURING SAFETY IN LIVE BURNS

The IC of this event was a career firefighter with more than 20 years of experience. He had participated in multiple live fire training evolutions in the past. Despite this level of experience, he was unaware of the existence of standards for conducting live fire training in acquired structures, and experienced near-tragic consequences.

The use of acquired structures for live fire training is widely regarded as the best method for training firefighters in basic fire behavior, fire suppression tactics, and related skills. Without the proper training on assembling, conducting, and participating in these training events, there is a risk of firefighter injuries and fatalities and the potential for fire spread to adjacent properties, the damage to fire suppression equipment, and the possibility that lawmakers will restrict or ban a valuable training technique.

Many firefighters and fire instructors continue to be unclear on how to safely and properly conduct a training exercise using an acquired structure, thus placing firefighters at risk when they participate in these drills. The organizational culture of many departments includes a lack of awareness of safety standards, poor risk management, and resistance to change, each of which compounds the problem.

Responding to structure fires is inherently risky and presents significant hazards to firefighters. The direct hazards include extreme fire behavior and rapid fire development, toxic by-products of combustion, and structural collapse. The indirect hazards include the physiological stressors of firefighting (short term and long term) and the long-term exposures to toxins and carcinogens. The fire service has attempted to minimize these risks through improved fire codes, technological innovation, and improved procedures.

THE NEED FOR STANDARDS

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)1 noted that from 1977 to 2000 the number of firefighter deaths in structure fires dropped 59 percent, a statistic that is often attributed to improvements in protective clothing, training, and procedures. It also noted that simultaneously the number of fire responses had decreased by 54 percent. This raises the question, “Are firefighters just as likely to die today as they were 25 years ago?” (1) The one area that showed marked increases over the above period was the rate of deaths due to traumatic injuries while operating inside structures. (1, 9).

We depend on experienced officers to prepare our firefighters to meet these risks. As our experienced officers retire, they may be replaced by less experienced officers. We have become increasingly dependent on training and simulations as replacements for experience.

The fire service has used acquired structures for live fire training for decades to educate firefighters on fire behavior. Current live fire simulators, while useful, are unable to replicate the conditions firefighters will most likely encounter in a real fire situation. Acquired structures have inherent risks, and everything possible should be done to remove the risks to firefighters while maintaining the realistic simulations. These risks include combustible interior finishes and structural fuel load, variable avenues for fire spread, limited means of egress, and collapse.2

The consequences of not having procedures for conducting live fire training in acquired structures includes firefighter injuries and deaths; loss of the public’s confidence; and increasing demands from lawmakers to regulate, and perhaps ban, the use of acquired structures in firefighter training. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is already taking a step in this direction: It is recommending that only burn facilities be used for firefighter training.3 According to its report, from 1983 to 2002, 10 firefighters died while participating in live fire training exercises in acquired structures.

The 2008 United States Fire Administration report of firefighter fatalities states that there were 115 on-duty deaths in the United States in 2007.4 Eleven of these fatalities were firefighters in training scenarios—almost 10 percent of the total. These tragic fatalities are probably only the tip of the iceberg. Industrial accident studies have shown that there are 10 minor injuries, 30 property damage accidents, and approximately 600 near misses for every fatality or major injury reported.5

Asbestos Incident6

The issue of mistakes and accidents in training burns is not limited to small or rural departments. In the summer of 2006, a medium-sized Oregon city department conducted a training burn in a rundown motel that was being demolished to make room for a new veterinary hospital. This city fire department is a combination department with 70 career staff and six stations, serving a community of 52,000.

Following the training burn, after an anonymous tip to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, an investigation was undertaken to determine if asbestos roofing and flooring had been removed prior to the live fire training. The investigation showed that through a series of miscommunications and misunderstandings, the building’s asbestos was never removed. (6) The city building department had issued a demolition permit, but the process required paying a fee only. It did not regulate or monitor the removal of asbestos. The situation was further confused by an environmental report provided by the demolition contractor that made no mention of the presence of asbestos material. (6)

The lieutenant in charge of this training burn (his first) mistakenly assumed that because the city had issued a demolition permit, all of the asbestos was removed. I was the previous training officer for this city. Despite having conducted training burns for more than 12 years with this department, I had provided little succession planning or training for firefighters on how to plan and prepare these events. The documents and checklists I had used for doing this were available on the city’s computer network, but the lieutenant did not know it. This subsequently left the lieutenant with no guidance and little information. (6)

The fallout from this incident resulted in fines, policy changes, and a public relations fiasco for the department. The owners of the property, the demolition company, and the fire department were fined $36,000, which included the fire department fine of $7,200 for “openly accumulating waste containing asbestos.” (6)

THE NFPA STANDARD

The primary reference for conducting live fire training is NFPA 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions (2007). Chapter 1 of NFPA 1403 states:

The purpose of this standard shall be to provide a process for conducting live fire training evolutions to ensure that they are conducted in safe facilities and that the exposure to health and safety hazards for the fire fighters receiving the training is minimized.7

This standard has become the minimum accepted standard for conducting live fire training, and despite the fact that it was published more than 25 years ago, firefighters still are not fully aware of or familiar with this standard. The reasons for this are many and varied. Small departments with inexperienced personnel, often volunteers, struggle to provide effective training with limited resources and time. Turnover among experienced trainers and officers, lack of written guidelines or comprehensible training, and lack of succession planning have led to a situation where there is a strong possibility of a future training tragedy.

NFPA 1403 was created as the result of a tragedy. On January 26, 1982, Engineer William Duran and Firefighter Scott Smith died during a training burn at an acquired structure conducted by the Boulder (CO) Fire Department; Firefighter Dan Cutler was forced through a wall by the flashover that killed the other two firefighters. He received burns over 60 percent of his body.8 The first edition of NFPA 1403 was published in 1986 and was subsequently updated in 1992; 1997; 2002; and, most recently, 2007.

THE OREGON SOLUTION

In April 2007, the Oregon Fire Instructors Association (OFIA) held its 28th annual conference in Keizer, Oregon.9 During that conference a resolution was proposed that called for the following:

… development of a state standard identifying the knowledge and competencies required by instructors delivering live fire training. In addition, we request that the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST) assign this topic to the Fire Policy Committee to study this issue and make recommendations for establishment of such a standard.

In response to the OFIA resolution, the Oregon Fire Service Policy Committee addressed this issue at its August 2007 meeting. The recommendations of a subcommittee were to develop an awareness class for all firefighters that provides information on the NFPA 1403 standard. To meet these recommendations the OFIA, in partnership with the DPSST, provided the following:

1. A self-running, 30-minute awareness program on NFPA 1403, designed for review by all firefighters. The goal was that this program would become part of every entry-level firefighter academy in Oregon.
2. Copies of this multimedia computer program, along with a copy of NFPA 1403, were distributed in 2009 to more than 350 fire departments in Oregon. This training program is also available for download without charge from the OFIA Web site, www.ofia.net.
3. To help develop an Oregon-specific live fire instructor training program, DPSST and OFIA, in 2009, hosted the NFPA 1403, Conducting Compliant Live Burn Training in Acquired Structures, class as developed by members of the Illinois Fire Service Institute for Pennwell Publishing and the Fire Department Instructors Conference. DPSST and the OFIA also hosted a training group from Florida in a weeklong class on conducting live fire training in acquired structures based on Florida laws for live fire training.
4. In 2010, OFIA developed and hosted an Acquired Structure Live Fire Training Instructor Training program to teach fire service training officers how to safely conduct live fire training in acquired structures. To date, it has been presented four times. The student manual is available for free download from www.ofia.net.

The Oregon fire service is not done. There are still too many departments and firefighters that either ignore or are unaware of how to safely conduct live fire training in acquired structures. Within the past two months, there was another Oregon live fire training exercise in which firefighters were injured. Nationally from 1998 to 2004, NIOSH completed investigations of six deaths that occurred during live fire training at acquired structures. (4) Repeatedly, the investigators discovered that these firefighter fatalities were caused by violating NFPA 1403. Examples included the use of flammable or combustible liquids in setting fires, lighting fires in designated exit paths, using live firefighters to play the role of victim, and using fueling substances that release extreme amounts of heat and smoke.

Although it may seem incredible that there are fire departments that are unfamiliar with or unaware of this standard, it is undeniable that some agencies need to be reminded about it. Dave Trebisacci, staff liaison on the NFPA Technical Committee on Fire Service Training, notes: “That’s probably my greatest fear. This document was created to save lives. It sends shudders through me to think that some departments just don’t know it exists.”10 We still need more research, more education, and more training if we want to continue to use this valuable training tool.

Endnotes

1. Fahy, R. U.S. Fire service fatalities in structure fires, 1977-2000 (Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association, 2002).

2. Grimwood, P., Hartin, E., McDonugh, J., & Raffel, S. (2005). 3D Firefighting (1 ed.). Stillwater, OK: Fire Protection Publications.

3. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (November 2004). Preventing deaths and injuries to fire fighters during live fire training in acquired structures, DHHS (NIOSH) Department of Public Safety Standards and Training. (2008). Fire Resources. In Live-Fire training guidelines. Retrieved June 1, 2008 from http://www.oregon.gov/DPSST/FT/FTResources.shtml.

4. United States Fire Administration. (2008). Press Releases. In USFA Releases Provisional 2007 Firefighter fatality statistics. Retrieved May 17, 2008 from https://www.usfa.dhs.gov/media/press/2008releases/010808.shtm 69.

5. Roughton, JE & Mercurio, JJ. (2002). Developing an effective safety culture: A leadership approach (1st ed.). Burlington, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann.

6. Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. (2008). Air Quality. In situations where open burning is allowed. Retrieved May 7, 2008 from http://www.deq.state.or.us/aq/burning/openburning/openburn.asp.

7. National Fire Protection Association. (2007). Standard on live fire training evolutions (NFPA 1403). Quincy, MA: NFPA.

8. Kazmierzak, B. (2007 April). Live fire training LODDs: We must heed the lessons learned. Fire Engineering, 160, 23-27.

9. Hartin, E. (2007 April). Resolution 2007-02. Paper presented at annual conference of the Oregon Fire Instructors Association, Keizer, OR.

10. Paradise, J. (May/June 2003). NFPA 1403 guides firefighter safety during hazardous live fire training. In NFPA Journal. Retrieved May 15, 2008 from http://www.nfpa.org/JournalHome.asp?categoryID=187&src=NFPAJournal&URL=Publications/NFPAJournal.

MICHAEL KINKADE is chief of Forest Grove (OR) Fire and Rescue and the City of Cornelius, Oregon, and the president of the Oregon Fire Instructors Association.

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