Real Training in Synthetic Smoke

June 2, 2021

Search and rescue. These two words are at the core of nearly every fire service mission. The phrase is sequential and synergetic. Until a victim is located, they can’t be rescued. A located victim will perish if the rescue is ill prepared, flawed or worse, yet not considered. These activities, search and rescue (S&R), must be second nature to our crews.

Consider how we train

The scope and scale of S&R vary dramatically. Whether in a smoky basement or a Louisiana flood there are core S&R knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) that must be mastered. These include communications, maintaining orientation, navigating the environment and ultimately locating, then removing, the victim(s). There are volumes of fire service periodicals and manuals that address these KSAs. In this article, we focus on the systematic control of the training episode and training environment rather than the skills. Though training officers and company officers are our primary audience, all firefighters have a stake in training and will benefit from reading on.

With the importance of the S&R mission, just how should we train? Consider this question as a starting point. Is it appropriate for a new dive team member to don dive gear, obscure their mask, grab a search line and descend through a hole cut in the ice to learn the process of spiral rope? No special operations instructor would consider placing the diver at such risk. Additionally, the chances of learning anything related to rope search is implausible for a diver concerned only with surviving the training.

Best practices for designing this dive drill for success include the member having exceptional command of their equipment in the underwater environment. This is accomplished by hours of dives with methodical increases in complexity. Safety is reinforced in each of the dives, and repeated experience with equipment and a gained trust of senior divers, command staff and experience with hardline communications put the diver in a state of readiness.

Once the basics are covered, concepts of underwater spiral or circle search rescue patterns are addressed. This is first done in room air and a fully lit apparatus bay. Success is built from repeating these basic skills in environments with increasing complexity; first a dark bay, then a lit pool, followed by a dark pool and then in open water. With the progression, the diver gains confidence in the KSAs required for these complex operations. They day they descend below the ice, they are simply adding one variable of limited ingress and egress to the recipe for success.

So why are we discussing underwater operations in the context of firefighter search? Arguably, search in fire environments is more complex than a dive search. The environment can range from a right-hand search small residence to a mega commercial structure requiring rope-assisted search. Complexity increases in a high rise or mega commercial structure, where multiple divisions are completing searches in varied environments. The use of thermal imaging and the coordination required for an oriented search are skills that must be learned. Thrusting firefighters into complex search environments, without methodically training on KSAs, is akin to asking an inexperienced diver to descend through the ice with zero visibility and a rope in hand to learn spiral search techniques.

The benefit of training smoke

The ability of the trainer to control the training environment is dramatically increased with the use of synthetic smoke. In contrast to the “wait and see” uncertainty of the quality of smoke using smoke barrels or smudge pots, the use of smoke machines allows the trainer to dial in the environment to best support the learning objectives. A light haze may assist a recruit in gaining confidence, whereas a seasoned firefighter will need a nearly totally obscured atmosphere to challenge their abilities.

Another huge win with training smoke is the safety factor. When “any unconfined open flame or device that can propagate fire to the building, structure, or other combustible materials” (NFPA 1403.3.3.18) is used, the requirements of NFPA 1403: Standard on live fire training evolutions come into play. There certainly is a place for live fire and real smoke in search training; however, the risk and exposure potential of toxic environments to build foundational KSAs is unacceptable.

By using training smoke, clean gear, SCBA and a hood dedicated to clean training we can protect firefighters from carcinogens. A best practice with training hood is to provide each firefighter with a different colored hood, such as blaze orange, for clean training. Since the exposure risk is low in this training environment, it isn’t necessary to spend the extra money on newer particulate hoods.

In this new era of training we’re coming out of the dark, or sooty, ages. Using synthetic smoke drastically reduces the exposures to carcinogens over the live fire alternatives for students and instructors. Synthetic smoke produced from oil, glycol or mineral-based fluid was studied by NIOSH in 2012 and showed this smoke was not without risk. Prolonged exposures, present in the fire training environment, were above the allowable time-weighted averages. These exposures were linked to both acute and chronic health problems. Water-based smoke is shown by independent tests to produce levels far below allowed exposure limits. Best practices for avoiding exposure should be adhered to in all synthetic smoke environments. The NIOSH recommendations of respiratory protection, fit testing, rotating instructors, changing out cartridges, and wearing nitrile gloves when refilling smoke machines are relatively simple to follow.

Instructors have the potential for increased exposures due to the time they spend in smoke. It is especially important they are vigilant in protecting themselves from all exposures. Though it may seem unnecessary in a water-based smoke environment, the hazmat mantra of protection using Time, Distance, and Shielding applies to any environment which may contain toxins.

A lesson from the military

In the fire service, we often look to the military to borrow best practices in training. If we look at arms training for the military, a radical evolution has occurred. The most important lesson to learn from our military brethren is to match the tool to the training. The use of ‘dry fire’ ammunition and lasers is prevalent in initial training

In addition to reducing the budgetary load of live ammunition on our military, safety is increased for the newest soldiers and their instructors. The ability to make a “learning mistake” with a laser is infinitely less fatal than with live ammunition. That said, the military is all in on the use of live ammunition after the KSAs have been drilled upon with simulated ammunition. Just as our military wouldn’t allow a soldier to have their first experience with live ammunition be in combat, we shall not allow the first non-digital experience with fire and smoke to be on a firefighter’s first fire. Current technology cannot duplicate live ammunition, or in our case, live fire.

Let’s be honest, other than the thermal element, training smoke is very real for obscuring visibility. The training environment is created to support the training objectives. Having greater control over the environment is always preferable to less control. The use of synthetic smoke can be leveraged with the use of thermal mannequins. In a recent acquired structure training, using only thermal panels and smoke machines, we heard repeatedly just how realistic the conditions were for the crews. With pulsing orange glow and audible crackling, the interior and exterior conditions were incredibly real.

Adding a thermal mannequin to the bread and butter operations of search and vent, enter, isolate, search (VEIS), increases learning for firefighters. Rather than pretending a hose dummy is a victim, crews see a thermal signature in a realistically weighted dummy. A common challenge in thermal image training, the lack of thermal contrast is overcome with the technology of a thermal mannequin.  After locating a victim using real world skills, the task of rescue is supported by real world mass and shape of these realistic mannequins.

Search and rescue training must be completed in increasingly more complex environments to build muscle memory. The ability to control the complexity is the secret weapon of fire instructors. Matching the training environment to the learning objectives is both an art and a science. In fire instructor I training we learned the only way to promote higher level learning is to first satisfy the safety and security needs of our students.

Whether were training a new diver in rope search, or a seasoned firefighter in the nuances of VEIS, control of the training environment is paramount. With technology we tailor the environment to the objectives and learner. By doing it clean, we protect the health of our students and ourselves. Be judicious in your use of our most powerful, and most dangerous, training tool, live fire. Leverage technology to build KSAs and muscle memory before you strike a match. Train smart, train safe, train CLEAN.

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