The recent death of an apprentice firefighter in Baltimore, Maryland (Linskey, 2007b) during live fire training has many people asking questions. The preliminary investigation conducted by the Baltimore City Fire Department determined that this training exercise was not conducted in compliance with 1403 Standard on Live Fire Training in Structures (National Fire Protection Association, 2002). But does this answer the question of how this happened or why this young mother died? I would contend that lack of compliance with existing standards provides only a partial answer.
It is unknown exactly when fire service agencies began the practice of live fire training to develop and maintain skill in interior firefighting operations. However, it is likely that firefighter fatalities have occurred during this type of training activity since its inception.
At first glance, the only difference between these two incidents is the month and day of occurrence. However, a major difference between these two tragic events is that the first occurred in 1982 while the second occurred 20 years later in 2002.
This comparison provides a dramatic example of the limited impact that existing live fire training policy has had on the safety of individuals participating in this hazardous, but essential training activity. This observation is not to minimize the important guidance provided by NFPA 1403 (2002), but to point to several limitations in the scope of this standard and examining this critical type of training activity simply from a reactive, rules based approach.
Structure fires present significant hazards to firefighters. These hazards include rapid fire development, toxic products of combustion, potential for structural collapse, and the physiological stress of firefighting itself. The fire service has worked diligently to reduce the risks of firefighting operations through procedural and technological means. However, firefighters and fire officers continue to be significantly at risk of injury or death. This is illustrated by the upward trend in the number of firefighter fatalities during two related activities:
- Firefighting operations inside structures (Fahy, 2002).
- Fire training activities (United States Fire Administration, 2003).
Mitigating these hazards and reducing the risk to firefighters during structural firefighting is a complex undertaking due to the interactive complexity and tight coupling of the structure fire environment and firefighting operations. Any policy change intended to address these two problems involves the question of acceptable risk. Perow (1984) observes that "sensible living with risky systems means keeping the controversies alive, listening to the public, and recognizing the essentially political nature of risk assessment' (P. 306).
A fire in a structure presents complex and dynamic challenges. Firefighters are faced with the need to protect the lives of the building occupants as well as their own while controlling the fire and protecting the uninvolved areas of the structure and its contents. Structure fires develop quickly requiring decision-making and action under extreme time pressure. These conditions require a high level of situational awareness and decision-making skill that is dependent on recognition of complex patterns of information presented by the fire environment (Klein, 1999; Klein, Orasanu, Calderwood, & Zsambok, 1995).
Firefighters learn their craft through a mix of classroom and hands-on training. A majority of skills training is performed out of context (i.e. no smoke or fire) or in a simulated fire environment (i.e. using non-toxic smoke). However, this alone does not prepare firefighters to operate in the heat and smoke encountered in an actual structure fire or develop critical decision-making skills. Developing this type of expertise requires live fire training!