Firefighter Training Death Leads To Criminal Indictment

A training exercise goes bad. One firefighter dies. Two others are injured. The fire department's assistant chief is indicted on manslaughter and assault charges. This is the tragic situation faced by the Lairdsville Fire Department, just outside Utica...


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Did he conduct the training in a way that allowed substantial and unjustifiable risks? That will require a jury to compare the way in which this training exercise was conducted with generally accepted fire service standards for live-firefighting training. If there were a gross deviation from the safety precautions normally taken in this kind of training, then the jury might find Baird guilty. Its verdict should be based on whether it finds facts justifying a conclusion that Baird's actions created a substantial and unjustifiable risk.

In judging whether Baird acted recklessly, the jury might be asked to compare his actions with an industry standard. There are standards for conducting live-firefighting training exercises such as this, both in New York and nationally. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions, is the national standard for live-firefighting exercises. Following a 1982 training accident that killed two firefighters, NFPA began a process that led to the issuing of this standard in 1986. It addresses every aspect of a training evolution, from the acquisition of the property through the post-training critique and record keeping.

NFPA 1403 emphasizes firefighter safety throughout. It includes a number of specific requirements that are potentially relevant to this case. There must be adequate exits, and participants must be briefed in a pre-burn walkthrough. There are restrictions on the use of fuels such as debris found in the structure, which should not be used in order to prevent unanticipated burns. Section 4.4.14 specifically states, "No person(s) shall play the role of a victim inside the building." There are several provisions for providing both attack lines and backup lines. Section 4.4.10 requires that, "A building evacuation plan shall be established …"

The NFPA standards do not carry the force of law (unless specifically adopted by a state), so it is not necessarily illegal to conduct a house burning that fails to comply with every part of the standard. But they certainly serve as a valuable point of reference for a jury to use in judging whether a fire department's activities are reasonable or reckless.

Regardless of the outcome of the trial, this tragedy teaches some painful lessons about the critical importance of carefully planning and executing training exercises. The law does not prohibit house burnings, and recognizes that there may be acceptable risks involved with them. However, these risks must be limited to those which are reasonable and necessary.


Steve Blackistone, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an attorney and a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Montgomery County, MD.