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.

Instructors have substantive responsibility for the safety and health of all participants in live fire training activities. Many injuries or fatalities resulting from rapid changes in fire conditions or interior environment result from instructors' inability to anticipate fire development and the impact of tactical operations. In other cases heat stress injuries occur as a result of instructors' lack of understanding of the physiological demands of live fire training (despite the requirements for rehab and information on heat stress provided in NFPA 1403 (National Fire Protection Association, 2007)). In some cases this lack of technical skill is compounded by inappropriate individual or organizational attitudes towards risk and injury. This is exemplified by one fire chief who observed "if a fireman is on the department and doesn't get burned, he isn't doing his job. . . If they don't get burned, I don't want them [on] our department. If they are afraid to get burned, they're on the wrong job" (Walsh, 2006).

By not providing guidance and clarity in the requisite knowledge and experience, NFPA 1403 places the burden of determining instructor qualification on the "agency having jurisdiction". What qualifications should individuals conducting live fire training have? Given the substantive responsibility placed on live fire training instructors they should be highly skilled in crew resource management, fire dynamics, firefighting operations, and the delivery of instruction.

Some states have taken positive steps in this direction, requiring certification of live fire training instructors. It is essential that these programs not simply focus on ensuring that instructors know and have the ability to follow the rules, but that they have a sound knowledge of fire dynamics, physiological demands of live fire training, and are skilled in the essential elements of crew resource management. (leadership, communications, and teamwork).

Fire Service Manual Volume 4, Guidance and Compliance Framework for Compartment Fire Behavior Training (CFBT Steering Group, 2002) addresses the competency requirements for compartment fire behavior training (live fire) instructors in considerable detail. The following general recommendations are based on this document and have been adapted from 3D Firefighting: Training, Techniques, and Tactics (Grimwood, Hartin, McDonough, & Raffel, 2005) should be considered as a framework for instructor qualification.

  • Demonstrated commitment to personal safety and the safety of others.
  • High level of skill in crew resource management (communications, situational awareness, problem solving, decision making, and teamwork).
  • High level of technical skills such as the use of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), hose and appliances, fire apparatus pumps, etc.
  • High level of knowledge and expertise in fire behavior, tactical ventilation, and fire control tactics
  • Substantial operational experience in structural firefighting
  • Qualification as a fire and emergency services instructor
  • Experienced in delivery of classroom and/or skills training (depending on the instructional assignment)
  • Specific training and qualification in the delivery of live fire training

Training programs leading to certification as a firefighter or fire officer address some of these competencies. However, current standards to not address crew resource management skills and fire dynamics on a substantive basis. Further, instructor training often focuses on developing classroom instructional skills, with little emphasis on hands on instruction, particularly in high hazard topics.

A Call to Action

Neither improved technology nor more restrictive work rules will eliminate firefighter fatalities during live fire training. The common denominator in most, if not all traumatic fatalities during live fire training is human error. The missing link is improved technical and crew resource management competence on the part of all participants, but most of all the instructors, that have responsibility for providing a positive and safe learning environment.

The general requirements outlined in the preceding section provide a basic framework for establishing qualifications for live fire training instructors. Organizations contemplating implementation of or conducting a live fire training program should expand on this basic framework, and define the specific requirements based on the scope and nature of the training to be conducted.

IIt will be important to ensure that subsequent editions of NFPA 1403 include guidance on the qualification of live fire instructors. However, the fire service should not wait, but take immediate steps to mitigate the risks presented by live fire training and provide a realistic and effective context for developing expertise in structural firefighting.