Clean Training

June 2, 2021
An idea we can live with

Firefighter training saves the lives of civilians, but should it cost firefighters their lives or health? Honing the skills of a professional firefighter, whether they receive a paycheck or not, is essential for successful operations. “Sets and reps” and “Not training until you get it right, but training until you can’t get it wrong” are mantras often used in emergency services training. These repetitions build muscle memory, but if reps are completed in an immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) situation, they also exponentially increase exposure. Clean training is an idea whose time has come. Ignoring the huge benefits of clean training is akin to a drowning person refusing a life preserver.

Calculated risks for valuable training

So why are we disabling and killing firefighters with “dirty training”? Chief Eddie Buchanan coined the phrase EDLH—Eventually Dangerous to Life and Health. EDLH exposures are not immediate killers, but lead to disease, cancer, disability and death. No matter how exceptional your PPE is, how vigilant you are with your breathing apparatus or how thorough your decontamination procedures are, live-fire training exposes firefighters to products of combustion.

As a profession we’ve made incredible strides. We have dramatically reduced firefighter exposures both on the emergency scene and the drill ground. But is it enough? Is it acceptable to expose a firefighter in training? NFPA 1403: Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions limits the Class A fuels we use in training to wood products, prohibiting the carcinogen-laden hydrocarbons of the legacy live burns many of us experienced in fire academies conducted in the 1990s and early 2000s. Even burning clean wood products produces carcinogens.  Additionally, Chapter 6 of the NFPA live-fire training standard guides us on the use of gas-fired facilities. These facilities burn cleaner but are not without exposure risk.

At the core of the question, “To expose or not to expose,” is the Risk/Benefit/Consequence guideline we use on every significant emergency response. Words vary between departments; however, we risk a lot to save a lot (a savable life), we risk a little to save a little (savable property) and we risk nothing to save what is already lost. The risk, or consequence, of exposure to products of combustion is disease and death. Similarly, the risk from thermal insult is disfigurement, debilitation and death. These are significant. We protect ourselves and take calculated risks with eyes wide open.

We will take calculated risks for valuable training. We are in a high-risk profession and we conduct high-risk training. We remove unknowns and provide robust safety measures to increase the margin of safety. We support the mantra “No one should be hurt or killed in training” with actions in addition to words. 

The benefits of live-fire training are absolutely worth the risk. We train in a controlled environment to reduce the risks to an acceptable level. In the ISFSI Live Fire Instructor courses, we require students to produce and execute standard compliant burn plans. By controlling every aspect of the live-fire environment, we can use this incredibly valuable tool safely. Our contingency plans use the LCES acronym we’ve borrowed from the wildland world. We establish lookouts, communications, escape routes and safety zones in every high-risk training. Instructors trained and credentialed in live fire are competent and confident in their abilities.

The ability to locate, confine and extinguish are core engine company operations that must be executed in live-fire conditions to save civilian lives. Similarly, search and rescue, whether completed by a truck or engine crew, are completed in hostile live-fire situations on the fireground. To expect proficiency in this environment to appear solely from a virtual reality experience, a video or a textbook is unrealistic. Clean training provides a safe environment to develop the skills needed in high-risk training environments and in even higher risk responses.  

Competing objectives

Competing objectives is a phrase that is often used in today’s fire service. Two objectives that collided head on are cancer and burn training. Cancer hits fire departments hard and hits training bureaus harder. Efforts to decrease our members’ exposure can appear to be in direct competition with meeting our training objectives of “realistic and relevant training.” To meet these competing objectives, we are more deliberate with burn days and rehab. We wash gear more often and are sticklers on fuels used in live-fire training.

A perfect storm of competing objectives drives positive change. A comprehensive cancer prevention initiative addressing proactive limitations of exposure and meticulous decontamination after every fire exposure—on scene or in training—is needed. If budgets can support second sets of gear, bagging and cleaning gear following training can reduce exposure. If this is not a financial option, requiring gross decontamination followed by gear washing following live-fire training is required. 

The studies being published nationally and internationally are sobering. One commonality is the absorption rates in the neck area are extremely high, especially when core temperatures of an individual are raised while wearing a contaminated fire hood. A simple action taken in the recruit academy can set exposure avoidance memory markers and reduce exposure.

Initially, the concept of recruits not wearing hoods during search training seemed to have potential. Removing the dreaded cancer ring—the fire hood—entirely from the equation reduces exposures and supports the body’s cooling mechanisms. The downside of eliminating hoods from recruit training is the effect on muscle memory. It needs to be part of the ritual of donning gear, something stressed heavily at the most vital stage of a person’s career—the academy. 

A simple, inexpensive solution is to supply every recruit with a ‘clean training’ hood. This can be a bright safety orange fire hood that meets all NFPA standards but is only to be used in all non-burn trainings. The color reinforces the use of clean training principles, can be identified from a distance by training officers as a training hood, and is acceptable for use in live fire in the unlikely event a training hood ends up on a response. Pushing this from recruits to all members can be expensive; however, in comparison to the costs and consequences of exposure, this is an investment that makes sense.

Train smarter

Acquired structure training is an ideal place to exercise clean training principles. This often requires canvassing the district for potential structures and establishing relationships with second-hand stores to furnish these structures. Smoke machines which mimic low visibility situations and space heaters can be added for heat signatures. Live fire can be simulated either with digital panels or innovative theatrical tricks. The use of non-toxic tools in acquired structures drastically reduces carcinogen exposure. It also drastically reduces the time and cost of preparing an acquired structure for a live-fire training episode.

Using realistic rescue dummies that feel like a human is preferable to hose dummies or rigid mannequins. The skills required to descend a ladder with a true victim are best simulated with a mannequin that is dead weight without a rigid frame. Using simulated smoke, simulated fire and mannequins provides a real and valuable training environment. Adding a mannequin with a heat signature is a bonus if budget is available. We ask firefighters to train like they fight—having a realistic image on a TIC helps to reinforce the use of this valuable tool.

Clean is more than a marketing tool to sell apparatus, gear washers, PPE and SCBAs. It is a mindset. Using the risk consequence mantra must be driven into every officer’s field of view. Clean gear is cool and clean training is cooler. We need to consider IDLH and EDLH exposures. We have got to be smart about protecting our most valuable asset—our people.

We’re not proposing scrapping what we’ve done to get us to this point. We’re proposing to train, in the words of the iconic Chief Forest Reeder, smarter, faster, better and safer. By considering the risks and selecting the least toxic environment (LTE) which meets the training objectives, we reduce exposures. This reduction in exposure helps our firefighters enjoy long, healthy careers. The department must have buy-in from the top down and the bottom up. They must support initiatives with dollars as well as words. Complete a risk consequence analysis on every training you conduct and every training you attend. If you see an unnecessary exposure, say something. Don’t shy away from live fire training, but complete the requisite skills training in the LTE. Be smart, be safe, protect yourself and our firefighters. Clean training—it’s an idea we can live with.

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