Putting It All Together

June 2, 2021
Effective non-live fire training

As we address the hazards present in the current fire training equation, we need to have difficult conversations with ourselves, our departments and our profession. We must apply the appropriate tools for learning fireground tactics while at the same time taking serious considerations of limiting the amount of unnecessary exposure to the life-altering carcinogens that we could be exposed to on the training ground.

Live-fire training is a very effective and essential part of fire training. The ability to operate with a sharp mind and a cool head is an absolute necessity to accomplish certain objectives on the fireground. To develop these skills on the training ground, we must admit that there are objectives that can be accomplished on the training ground using simulation. Exposing firefighters to the dangerous carcinogens of the live fire training environment is unnecessary if we can accomplish the same objective in a less toxic simulated environment. 

Set students up for success

Let’s talk about when and where these less lethal training environments can be beneficial to the student. With the hot topic of the modern fire environment and the tactics required to battle fire in today’s occupancies, we must ask ourselves again what it is that we are trying to accomplish on the training ground. We must admit that even with live fire we cannot accurately recreate modern volatile and hostile environments and place ourselves in the middle of them to learn how to “slay the dragon.” That is simply negligent and unrealistic to use the hydrocarbons we find in today’s fires for training fires. More importantly, NFPA 1403, a document that has been written in the blood of victims of negligent live-fire training, does not allow it for obvious reasons.   

To begin, we must learn as much as we can from the UL and NIST studies, then apply the results of those studies to the fireground. The commonality in of all the studies is the power of taking energy away from those hostile environments through effective water application and sound fireground tactics. Training in both areas can be completed in non-live fire conditions given the fact that we have already invested a considerable amount of time understanding the results of those studies. Let’s take water application and talk about using a simulated environment. Through the use of the Bullex/Lion digital fire training system panels, smoke machines and thermal mannequins, a lot can be accomplished to achieve that goal. So how does the use of those products look?

One of the greatest challenges of live-fire training is that in most cases we ask our students to advance on the fire and then apply minimal water to reduce “knocking the fire out” so more scenarios can be accomplished. This reinforces solid tactics on advancing into, then locating, a fire under high heat conditions and thick, real smoke. Trainers often follow up with creating inappropriate muscle memory on correct water application once that fire is found. Asking students to hold back on the amount of water flowed at a training fire may make it easier to re-ignite the fire for the next evolution, however, it is cultivating bad habits. We have found with recruit firefighters that that bad muscles memory is often repeated in real fire situations. Because they always flowed minimal water in these training scenarios, we face the risk that we are setting them up for failure at the real deal. 

Tools for the job

The legacy method to accomplish both objectives is to train on hoseline advancement and search under live-fire conditions and fully extinguish the training fire. There is no replacement for that experience. However, water application can be trained on in a non-live fire scenario by using some of the tools currently available to us. One of those tools includes the Bullex/Lion digital fire panels referenced above, accompanied by a smoke machine as well as a thermal mannequin. You can flow as much water as needed at these panels and the simulated fire is controlled by the instructor and will not “extinguish” until the correct amount of water is applied with the proper techniques. 

These panels even will produce more smoke after water application is applied, simulating steam production when water is applied to the fire. The sound of fire is also produced by the panels while students are attempting to locate the fire in the synthetic smoke-filled environment. The use of these tools is endless when it comes to meeting some of our objectives that we previously were accomplishing under live-fire conditions. Some applications would be hoseline advancement and water application techniques used to battle the modern fire environment, rapid intervention crew training, search and rescue, and VEIS (vent, enter, isolate, search) to name a few.

I have witnessed many successful training evolutions using the generated smoke and fire panels. One tactic the fire service has been talking about a lot recently is “quick water.” Whether water is applied from the exterior or the interior, we can reproduce these scenarios using the panels. Call it transitional, exterior water immediately followed by interior water, or whatever you want—it is a tactic we need to train on. This principle is used by progressive departments to get water on the fire by the quickest means possible to reduce the hostile energy of the fire. By placing a panel just inside a second story window along with synthetic smoke coming from the window, we can produce a simulated room and contents fire that can be observed during a size up. Students apply water into that opening using proper water application techniques and reducing the energy of the simulated fire. The students then quickly transition into the building where more panels are located that are consistent with fire conditions showing from the exterior. 

With the added placement of a thermal mannequin that produces a heat signature for thermal imaging, we have just created a very effective training evolution and accomplished several different objectives. Now with the added benefit of turning right around and resetting to immediately conduct another evolution, we have a win-win situation because we are now able to carry out multiple evolutions in short period of time. These sets and reps create muscle memory that we discussed earlier.  Multiple repetitions with very short reset time to create for a successful training environment.   Something that is very difficult to do in live-fire situations.

Additional applications

When thinking about other applications where these tools could be used, the following come to mind:

  • Modern Fire Attack: Many tactics and strategies have been recommended through the studies that are being conducted across the fire service and with the use of the fire panels, smoke machines and thermal mannequins, we have shown that we can practice these tactics in many different scenarios using these tools.
  • Basement fires: By placing panels in strategic locations in below-grade scenarios we can use the suggested tactics that came out of the most recent studies and again produce multiple sequential evolutions.
  • Coordinated fire attack: Evolutions consisting of size-up, hoseline advancement and water application followed immediately by coordinated ventilation can all be produced using the tools referenced above
  • Large area and complex searches: By placing the panels and smoke generators along with thermal mannequins we can simulate these environments. This type of training using live fire is nearly impossible to conduct and is a tactic that we need to practice more.

Summing this all up, it simply comes down to using the training tools we have at our disposal to match the training objective(s) we are trying to accomplish to provide the most effective training possible. There is no denying that live fire has its place on the training ground and is something that is vital to produce certain objectives and outcomes. With that we must also consider all of the other tools that are available to use to accomplish objectives that we cannot do in live-fire scenarios. We must also consider where we can reduce the exposure to the toxic products of combustion wherever we can to reduce the chances of life-altering illnesses created from being in these environments when it’s not necessary. 

Our training paradigm has changed. Training our crews with tactics to battle extreme fire behavior in modern environments is a necessity. We cannot create these hydrocarbon-rich environments and safely complete NFPA 1403 compliant trainings with live fire. We must train the tactics of modern fire attack. Technology can provide us the necessary tools to develop requisite skills and compliant live-fire training provides the dress rehearsal for fireground action. We can agree we all signed up “to risk a lot to save a lot” and should never forget that. We also must remain committed to being diligent in making sure we can do everything we can to be able to go home at the end of the day, and just as importantly, at the close of our career.

About the Authors

Matt Hoppel began his public service career in dispatch and as a law enforcement officer. His 28-year fire service career includes volunteer and career service and he currently hold the position of assistant chief over operations for the Billings (MT) Fire Department. He currently serves on the board of directors for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors as the western region director. Chief Hoppel is an ISFSI instructor and developed the curriculum for training based on the UL/ISFSI Basement Fire Studies. Chief Hoppel also serves as an adjunct instructor for Montana State University Fire Service Training School as well.

Dr. Kevin Milan serves as assistant chief with South Metro Fire Rescue (CO) with more than 25 years of fire service experience. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy (NFA) Executive Fire Officer Program, a recipient of two NFA outstanding research awards, and possesses Chief Fire Officer Designation through the Center for Public Safety Excellence. He holds a Master of Science in Executive Fire Service Leadership and a PhD in Fire and Emergency Management Administration through Oklahoma State University. He is past president of the Colorado Training Officers and Fire Marshal’s Associations, director for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors, a state advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, and a Governors appointee to the Colorado Fire Service Training and Certification Advisory Board. He serves on the faculty for Colorado State University in the Fire & Emergency Services Administration program. Milan presents at numerous regional and national conferences, and is active with fire service periodicals, journals, and textbooks as an author, contributor and editor.

Mauricio Segura is a battalion chief at South Metro Fire Rescue. He has 18 years of fire service experience as well as eight years in the private sector. Chief Segura holds a B.A. from the University of Colorado. He has been dedicated to the craft at all levels of service. In addition to regular detail, he has been a training instructor, safety officer, hazmat technician, technical rescue, ARFF team member. He is highly involved in development of future officers and is the recipient of numerous unit citations and awards for exemplary leadership and service.

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