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.

Fire service agencies responsible for conducting live fire training establish or clarify policy through development of standard operating guidelines and procedures. Generally these policies are in alignment with the requisite occupational safety and health regulations and national consensus standards. However, agencies are not precluded from establishing additional or more useful requirements.

In addition to the three primary elements of live fire training policy (regulations, standards, and guidelines or procedures), the courts have also weighed in on the responsibility of instructors to ensure the safety of students during this type of training activity. A fire department training officer in Lairdsville, NY was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide due to a fatality during live fire training in an acquired structure (Little, 2002). While this criminal proceeding did not directly establish detailed live fire training policy, this landmark case established precedent for holding instructors criminally accountable for fatalities occurring during live fire training. In addition, this incident generated sufficient political interest that the New York state legislature passed regulations governing live fire training procedure and NFPA 1403 (National Fire Protection Association, 1996) was modified in 2002 to proscribe the use of humans as simulated victims during live fire training

The Missing Link

Some will propose that the solution is to prohibit live fire training or to limit live fire training to purpose built structures. In fact, section A.4.2.1 of NFPA 1403 (Annex A includes non mandatory explanatory material) states "where live fire training structures are available, they should be used instead of acquired structures". Following the death of a Baltimore City apprentice firefighter during live fire training, the national news quoted several fire officers from metropolitan fire departments as stating that they do not conduct live fire training in acquired structures due to the high level of risk involved (Linskey, 2007a). I contend that this perspective ignores the real problem. The hazards presented by structural firefighting (in both an emergency and training context) are given. The degree of risk on the other hand is not. The missing link is the human element. In each live fire training fatality I would ask the same series of questions:

  • If the instructors, officers, and firefighters involved knew what was going to happen, would they have taken the same course of action?
  • Did anyone recognize the risks involved or developing fire conditions that placed participants' lives at risk? If they did, why didn't they intervene?

The safety of the participants (instructors and learners) is dependent on the competence of the instructor staff and the organizational culture in which the training takes place.

NFPA 1403 (National Fire Protection Association, 2007) addresses qualification of instructors in general terms, specifying that instructors must "be qualified by the authority having jurisdiction to deliver fire fighter training, who has the training and experience to supervise students during live fire training evolutions" (p. 4). More specific competencies are inferred, but not addressed specifically. For example, Sections 4.3.7, 5.3.5, and 6.3.8 of NFPA 1403 require that "The instructor-in-charge shall assess the selected fire room environment for factors that can affect the growth, development, and spread of fire (p. 7, p. 10, p. 13). Appendix A of NFPA 1403 expands on this responsibility pointing to the importance of heat release characteristics of materials used as primary fuels, preheating of combustibles, combustibility of wall and ceiling materials, and room geometry in fire development. However, the section of NFPA 1403 dealing with instructors does not address the competency of instructors in fire behavior and fire dynamics (beyond the minimum required of participants).