Live-Fire Training — Part 1: Are We Making a Wrong Turn?

An Instructor Argues That Training in Acquired Structures Is More Necessary Than Ever. Do You Agree?


To begin to examine the state of live-fire training, we'll review the move by some fire departments away from conducting live-fire training due to its perceived low value and high risks. Is the fire service making a wrong turn? Let us start with important data. First, according to statistics...


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To begin to examine the state of live-fire training, we'll review the move by some fire departments away from conducting live-fire training due to its perceived low value and high risks. Is the fire service making a wrong turn?

Let us start with important data. First, according to statistics compiled by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the overall number of structure fires in the United States is declining. In most areas, firefighters are working at fewer fires today and have less experience compared to their predecessors of a generation ago. At the same time, while the overall firefighter fatality rate remains virtually unchanged, there is an increase in the number of firefighters being killed and injured inside structures during extinguishment activities. So, at a time when fire personnel generally have less fire experience and firefighter fatalities are increasing inside structure fires, why are some in the fire service moving away from live-fire training? More specifically, why move away from using acquired structures for live-fire training when it seems we need high-quality, effective live-fire training today more than ever before?

With recent events, including the tragic death of a recruit firefighter during a live-fire training session, there is quite a bit of discussion on the apparatus room floor about the pros and cons of live-fire training. Every so often, I hear statements about live-fire training that I don't buy into. Here is one of them: "Live-fire training in acquired structures is just too dangerous. I won't take that sort of risk in my district."

What's true about this statement is that live-fire training can be dangerous. If NFPA 1403, Live Fire Training Evolutions, is not followed by competent instructional personnel and good industry live-fire training practices are not used, bad things can happen. As an analogy, driving a car through a residential neighborhood at 85 mph and not wearing a seatbelt is dangerous. Likewise, fire officers performing live-fire training in acquired structures without qualified instructors, with inappropriate structure preparation and non-compliance with NFPA 1403 can lead to dangerous situations. But live-fire training does not have to be dangerous. By using NFPA 1403 and following good industry practices, hazards can be identified, removed, mitigated or managed. By appropriate planning and action, a potentially hazardous condition or situation can be avoided and training conditions turned into an acceptable, calculated risk.

Even with full NFPA 1403 compliance, there is still a minimal level of risk for firefighters during live-fire training. However, it is a calculated and acceptable risk for most fire officers. To step back a moment and use the speeding-car analogy, if we drive that same car but now slow it down from 85 to 25 mph and fasten our seatbelt, our risk of death would be significantly reduced (as well as the risk to the neighborhood kids). However, the risk is not entirely eliminated. Similarly, when we comply with NFPA 1403 and use good fire industry practices during live-fire training in acquired structures, we can significantly reduce injury and fatality risks to a manageable, acceptable level.

Fire officers are fire service risk managers. We all should agree that approaching live-fire training in any less of a fashion than that called out in NFPA 1403 could be considered proceeding with reckless abandon, which can be costly in regard to potential firefighter injuries and deaths. Turning the tables, those fire officers who steer away from conducting effective live-fire training altogether have yet another risk on their hands — under-trained firefighters who pose risks to themselves and others. Firefighter training is a "pay me now or pay me later" type of program.

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