Live-Fire Training The New Reality

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., recounts the latest firefighter training fatalities and reviews standards and practices relating to the use of burn buildings.


We have all read and heard a great deal recently about the issues surrounding the use of live fire at locations other than established, regulated and properly designed training facilities. It is extremely difficult to think about this topic without pondering the fact that lives have been lost. It is...


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  • One instructor is assigned to each functional crew, which shall not exceed five students.
  • One instructor to each backup line.
  • Sufficient additional personnel to backup lines to provide mobility.
  • One additional instructor for each additional functional assignment.

You should delineate the training area through the use of ropes, signs, and fire line markings. The code specifically requires you to restrict spectators "to an area outside the operations perimeter established by the safety officer." Just as one the fireground, freelancing should be prohibited.

One of the things that you must never do is use a live human subject as a victim in the burn building. Suitable props should be acquired and used.

Prior to beginning live-fire evolutions, a search of the structure must be made. This is done to assure that unauthorized persons are not entering the structure to get a closer look at the operation. Or in the case of Newark, to insure that our resident homeless were herded out before the fire was lit.

A critical part of any live-fire training session, regardless of location, involves the pre-burn briefing session. Each aspect of the various evolutions will be covered and roles and expectations discussed. You do not want any unpleasant surprises during your training evolutions. Be sure to have a written plan to follow.

It is also extremely important to do a pre-burn walkthrough in the burn structure. It has been my experience that this gives a greater sense of confidence to the participants and instructors. They can become familiar with the layout of the building while they can still see the various parts of the training area. It will be the same building when filled with heat and smoke, but it sure won't seem that way.

All personnel, both students and faculty, must use the appropriate NFPA-compliant turnout gear, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and personal alert safety systems (PASS devices). Newer SCBA have the PASS device built into the apparatus. Just before the operation begins, an inspection of all personnel must be made. This is done for the following reasons:

  • To insure that all gear is compliant.
  • To insure that all gear is being worn correctly.
  • To insure that sufficient air is available in each SCBA. NFPA 1403 goes on to specify the circumstances that require the use of SCBA. These devices must be worn:
  • In an atmosphere that is oxygen deficient or contaminated by products of combustion or both.
  • In an atmosphere that is suspected of being oxygen deficient or contaminated, or both.
  • In any environment that can become oxygen deficient or contaminated, or both.
  • Below ground level.

Once the instructor-in-charge and the safety officer have concluded that all is in readiness, the decision to light the fire can be made. It is critical that an instructor visually confirms that the area where the fire is located is clear of personnel. This can eliminate the chance for death or serious injury. It is important to remember that the instructor-in-charge has the overall responsibility for the manner in which the operation is conducted.

The code is quite specific when it comes to the nature of the fuels to be used. It states in NFPA 1403 that "the fuels that are utilized in live fire training evolutions shall have known burning characteristics that are as controllable as possible. Unidentified materials, such as debris found in or around the structure that could burn in unanticipated ways, react violently, or create environmental or health hazards, shall not be permitted to be used." You should only use enough fuel to create a fire of the desired size.

There are the fuels you are not permitted to use. They include:

  • Pressure-treated wood.
  • Rubber.
  • Plastic.
  • Straw or hay treated with pesticides or harmful chemicals.
  • Flammable or combustible liquids are strictly prohibited.