Live Fire Training - The Missing Link

It is unknown exactly when fire service agencies began the practice of live fire training, however, it is likely that firefighter fatalities have occurred during this type of training since its inception.

Live fire training presents the same types of hazards encountered during emergency response operations. However, as a planned activity, training requires a higher standard of care to ensure the safety of participants. This is consistent with standard risk management practices in firefighting operations outlined by Chief Alan Brunacini (2002).

  • We will risk our lives a lot, in a calculated manner to save savable lives.
  • We will risk our lives a little, in a calculated manner to save savable property.
  • We will not risk our lives at all for lives or property that are already lost.

This perspective on risk management is commonly accepted throughout the fire service in the United States. Live fire training parallels the second element of the risk management profile: We will risk our lives a little in a calculated manner to develop competence in structural firefighting operations.

Regulations and Standards

Requirements for conducting live fire training vary from state to state. Some states define specific requirements within the context of occupational safety and health regulations that carry the weight of law.

Section 5 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 defines the duties of employers and employees with regards to occupational safety and health. This "general duty clause" provides the basis for enforcement action in the absence of specific regulations and places a greater burden on employers to maintain a safe workplace.

Meeting section 5(a)(1) of this clause on the fireground is not feasible in that there are inherent hazards in the fire environment. However, fire departments address the intent of this clause through effective risk management (i.e. guidelines and procedures, personal protective equipment, training). In some OSHA Plan States (where state occupational safety and health agencies promulgate equivalent regulations and have enforcement authority rather than federal OSHA), this clause has been applied specifically to live fire training.

In many cases, these regulations are based on NFPA 1403. In other states there are no specific regulatory requirements for live fire training. In other cases, NFPA 1403 simply defines recommended practice.

The Live Fire Training Standard

Originally developed in 1986, NFPA 1403 established a common framework for acceptable practice for live fire training. This standard has evolved since its inception undergoing four revisions (National Fire Protection Association, 1986, 1992, 1996, 2002, 2007). While compliance with these requirements has undoubtedly prevented or limited the effect of some accidents during live fire training (Colletti & Davis, 2004), the number of injuries and fatalities has continued to increase since its development (United States Fire Administration, 2003).

Detailed review of the latest revision of NFPA 1403 (National Fire Protection Association, 2007) shows little substantive change in areas that potentially impact the most substantive threats to firefighter safety. The 2007 edition of this standard prohibits location of fires in designated exit paths (a reasonable idea) and increases emphasis on the responsibility of the instructor-in-charge, stating: "It shall be the responsibility of the instructor-in-charge to coordinate overall acquired structure (or training structure) fireground activities to ensure correct levels of safety." While this too is a reasonable idea, what exactly is the "correct level of safety" and how is the instructor-in-charge to coordinate this effort?

NFPA 1403 (National Fire Protection Association, 2007) places specific emphasis on addressing unsafe acts and conditions directly connected to accidents that have occurred during live fire training (e.g., removal of low density fiberboard, prohibiting the use of flammable liquids except under specific conditions, prohibiting fires in exit paths and use of live victims). However, it does not explicitly address the primary causal factor influencing traumatic fatalities during live fire training. Most firefighters who die from traumatic injuries during live fire training die as a result of human error, often on the part of the individuals charged with ensuring their safety, the instructors. Reducing the risk of error requires both technical proficiency and competence in leadership, communication, and teamwork (i.e., crew resource management).