Safety Comes First in Texas A&M Fire Program

DALLAS, TEXAS -- When it comes to live fire training, Ron Peddy of Texas A&M University has a rule that trumps all others.

"There's no excuse for hurting a student in training, none," said Peddy, who was one of the presenters at Firehouse Central in Dallas this week.

Peddy is the associate director of logistics for the Texas Engineering Extension Service of the Emergency Services Training Institute of the university.

During his presentation, called "Safety Overview (Live Fire & Hands-On Training," Peddy said safety has to be the number one priority of any training exercise.

"In the EMS world, there's no excuse for dropping a patient," he said. "Well, in the fire world, there's no excuse for hurting a fire student."

To help him achieve that top goal, Peddy said he makes checklists covering all kinds of things that "could happen," "should happen" and "shouldn't happen."

His list includes things like making sure the weather is good before doing live fire training to making sure walking surfaces aren't covered with slippery algae, and checking that doors open and close as they should.

Peddy pointed out that the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has recommendations for live fire training outlined in its 1403 standards.

"Is NFPA the law, no," Peddy said. "But it is the national standard and there's no way you can explain your way around why you didn't follow a national standard."

Each year, Peddy has responsibility for thousands of students passing through the Texas A&M fire school. When dealing with that number of students, nothing can be left to chance.

That's why Peddy said he follows the NFPA standard of one instructor for every five students.

"It makes for a lot of people and a lot of logistics, but it's just the right thing to do and we do it," Peddy said.

Because the school is in Texas, which Peddy said is hot nine months out of the year, heat stress and heat injuries are constantly watched for and warned against.

The school has charts that say how much water students should be drinking depending on the heat index and the work they're doing. Students might say they're taking in sufficient fluids by taking four or five ounce paper cups.

"That's not enough, they need to be drinking quarts," Peddy said, noting that students are advised to monitor the color of their urine and watch out for dark yellow as a sign of dehydration.

"When you do live fire training, or any training for that matter, you need to have a good place for rehab that's out of the sun," Peddy said, noting that students quickly learn that if they keep themselves hydrated and rehab when they should, they can take the heat better and do more evolutions.

Even though the school makes sure students get a lot of heat and understand its effect on the body, they have a rule that they never exceed 700 degrees at eye level in any of their burn facilities, Peddy said. The school does not work with any "acquired structures" to burn so all of his comments were focused on permanent burn facilities in which temperatures are easier to control.

By using only measured amounts of hay as fuel, Peddy said it's possible to control the temperature. The school doesn't use pallets because no two pallets are alike with some being pine, and others hardwood and some with full slat coverage, and some having sparse coverage.

"Untreated hay works the best for us," he said. "It makes a lot of smoke and the residue is easy to clean up after the burn."

Nevertheless, there were good take away tips for fire instructors and training officers to apply for virtually any kind of training.

"When did it become OK to wear shorts for fire training?" Peddy asked rhetorically. "I can't believe how many students think it's OK to wear shorts during fire training."

To curb that trend, Peddy developed a manual for personal protective equipment that allowed shorts during classroom training but required full PPE for live fire training and on a scale for everything in between, including long pants and shirts for just being outside in the sun.

He makes students sign paperwork stating that they have read and understand all policies including those involving PPE before starting training.

"It's all about documentation, so if something goes bad, you can go back and say they knew, or should have known," he said.

All students are given a complete walk through of any burn structure before the live fire training commences, Peddy said. Exits and emergency egresses are pointed out, he added.

Before the students even set foot in the structure, an instructor or school employee goes through it all making sure the doors and windows are functioning, the floors aren't slippery and ladders are secure.

Even things like bees and "biting and stinging pests" are noted and dealt with appropriately.

The findings of the inspections are documented and the inspectors are required to sign the check sheets, Peddy said.

"We find that people take the check sheets much more seriously when they have to put a signature on them before any operations start," he said.

Safety officers are stationed inside and outside the structures to make sure everything goes as planned and that the plug can be pulled on any operation if things go haywire, Peddy said.

"And we don't use students as safety officers," Peddy said, noting that it doesn't make any sense for those trying to learn operations to be monitoring them looking for hazards. The same logic holds true for rapid intervention teams, he said.

"You don't want students running to rescue students when things go badly," he said.

It's always a good idea to have paramedics on hand in case injuries do happen and to have ways of communicating with each other when evacuation is needed or help is needed. Texas A&M uses a hand-held, aerosol-fired air horn using the universal three-blast signal for evacuations and to "call out the cavalry" if something unfortunate happens.

The intent of all live-fire training is to give students real life experiences, letting them feel the heat and learning from it, he said.

"We can give them a real life experience, but we need to make sure we do it safely," Peddy said.