The Importance of Live-Fire Training

As most of us know, more than half (55 percent) of all 911 calls responded to by the American fire service involve a medical emergency; less than 10 percent involve actual fire. Over the last 10 years, the numbers of fires and fire deaths have also gradually declined, thanks to some outstanding efforts in fire prevention.

These statistics have had a real, lasting impact on today’s fire service. Rigorous EMT/paramedic training has become a mainstay, but fewer fires means many firefighters don’t receive the same level of training on actual firefighting. Although the decrease in fires and fire deaths is a true testament to the progress we’ve made, we still need hands-on training to learn proper firefighting techniques and to keep ourselves as safe as possible on scene.

Some departments believe that when a recruit graduates from the academy or a Basic Firefighter (NPQ Firefighter I or equivalent) program, and they’ve met all the objectives of NFPA 1001: Standard for Firefighter Professional Qualifications, they’ve received all the instruction on fire behavior, hose placement and methods of fire attack that they’ll ever need. The fact is they’ve acquired only the basics.

In pursuit of attaining Firefighter I status, recruits must demonstrate their ability to extinguish a fire involving stacked or piled Class A materials that can be fought from the exterior of the structure. Not until advancing to Firefighter II status does the recruit coordinate an interior fire attack with all the necessary tools and personal protective equipment (PPE). For the very first time, they evaluate fire growth and development, conduct a primary search and communicate changing conditions to the incident commander (IC). All of these lessons and drills are conducted in the first few weeks of their career. So what happens after that?

The same high standard of continuing education that we place on EMS training should be carried over to our fire training to ensure firefighters can perform effectively and safely on the fireground. To ensure these high standards are met, it’s imperative that we provide everyone with continued hands-on training because if we don’t know how to properly extinguish a structure fire, who does?

Fire Behavior

Fire training must not only continue throughout a firefighter’s career, but it must also include up-to-date innovations and/or techniques as they are introduced into the fire service. Instructors should then explain in detail how these new developments improve on old techniques or methods.

Fire behavior is one good example of how a teaching technique has evolved through the years. Just as there have been new ways to improve fire equipment, there have been new approaches to understanding fire behavior. Many years ago, we believed and taught that there were three phases, or stages, of fire: incipient, free-burning and smoldering. Through further research and development, however, we’ve learned that there are actually four phases (ignition, growth, fully developed and decay), which instructors now teach to recruits.

Basic fire behavior is the foundation of all fire training and should be taught to every firefighter in a department at least once a year, just as the department would require cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) recertification. This instruction should include a review of the relationship between heat, fuel, oxygen and the sustaining uninhibited chemical chain reaction that makes up the fire tetrahedron; discussion and practice of fire-flow formulas to ensure a safe fireground; and introduction of any new developments that have been discovered to assist in the safety of firefighters.

Why is fire behavior training necessary? The most frequently cited contributing factors in the National Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System are situational awareness, followed by decision making. In the live-fire training environment, both of these skills are crucial to the success of the operation and can be repeatedly practiced and fine-tuned.

The Burn Building Experience

After fire behavior is understood, recruits move on to the live-fire environment, where the basic concepts of fire behavior can be observed in a burn building.

Under live-fire conditions, firefighters can view the phases of fire and its development; the physical changes of a solid fuel brought about by increased heating (pyrolysis); the build-up of combustible gases at the ceiling; and the rapid expansion and subsequent ignition of fire gases as they roll across the ceiling in what is referred to as flame-over or rollover. During this exercise, firefighters may also learn the various types of nozzle patterns and their effect on thermal layering, and how visibility can be changed by upsetting the thermal layer. Note: During live-fire training, it’s critical that an established command system be in place. It’s also an ideal time for “new” firefighters to drill on the incident command system (ICS), moving in and out of established divisions within the organizational structure while effectively practicing crew integrity and personnel accountability on the training ground.

For department instructors, this is the time to observe all members’ individual skill levels. They can evaluate everything from PPE to firefighters operating their SCBA in a stressful situation, nozzle control and hoseline advancement.

Important: While conducting this type of training, all departments should use their accountability systems just as they would (or should) on the fireground. Running live-fire training as you would on the scene of a working fire will ensure that operations will run smoothly and safely at a time when your crew can’t afford to make mistakes.

The Acquired Structure Fire

The last and most advanced level of fire training involves the acquired structure. Fighting an actual structure fire as part of a drill allows firefighters to receive the most realistic training possible.

Live-fire training in an acquired structure is probably the most difficult training atmosphere to control, which is why it must be the most closely supervised and monitored event any department undertakes; this will allow firefighters to gain valuable knowledge and practical experience while operating in a safe environment that closely resembles real life. Unfortunately, however, several firefighters have been injured and killed over the years during this type of training.

After the loss of firefighters William J. Duran and Scott L. Smith in 1982, along with the injuries of two others during a live-fire training accident, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) produced NFPA 1403: Standard on Live Fire Evolutions, which provides direction on how to conduct a live burn safely. Some of the items covered include location of exits, the required minimum water supply, delivery of water supply (i.e., tanker delivery and flow requirements), staging/parking for an ambulance, the fuels used during the burn and a pre-burn briefing where all aspects of each evolution are discussed.

After NFPA 1403 was established, many changes took place in fire training across the nation; today, every department that conducts any type of live-fire training should adhere to it. Nevertheless, as we’ve seen in the last year with the incident in Baltimore, this is not always the case, and the fire service continues to lose firefighters in training. The bottom line: NFPA 1403 must be followed in order to provide a safe training atmosphere for firefighters. If firefighters aren’t safe during training, at the very least, they will be a danger to themselves and their crewmembers on the fireground. At worst, we will repeat the mistakes of the past and cause further injuries and fatalities.

There is a fair amount of work involved in preparing both the firefighter and the acquired structure for a live-fire training drill. On the other hand, these types of exercises provide an enormous amount of information to the recruit, as well as the seasoned firefighter, that can’t be duplicated in propane or natural-gas burn facilities. In addition, an experienced live-fire instructor can teach both inside and outside the acquired structure, pointing out things like fire endurance–the amount of time that a building continues to exhibit fire resistance–which is crucial to deciding whether to perform an offensive or defensive attack.

Another advantage to live-fire drills: Firefighters not participating in the drill can view pre-flashover, flashover and post-flashover conditions from a safe area, allowing them to develop a mental image of the fire conditions that could possibly save their lives later. Smoke conditions can also be created so student firefighters can again view them and make a mental note so they’re better equipped to make future fireground command decisions.

Addressing the Opposition

One thing people may forget is that live-fire training is not an option–it’s mandatory. Unfortunately some people still don’t feel it’s an absolute necessity. The issue has therefore become a controversial one, but think about it: We expect anyone in any other profession to receive the best possible training and to maintain their skills throughout their career. Would you want a doctor who hasn’t practiced in years to perform surgery or administer advice to you or your family?

Like those in the medical profession, firefighters are held to a higher standard, therefore we must be prepared at all times to perform at the highest possible standards set by our industry. But simulations can only take us so far. So you must ask yourself if you and the others in your department are truly ready to properly perform on the fireground every time you leave the station. Are you really ready to provide safe and effective protection to someone’s home? Are you completely prepared to rescue civilians trapped in life-threatening situations? Can you leave the scene of every call you respond to knowing without a doubt that you did the best you could? Many people may be surprised at their answers to these questions.

Looking to Go Live?

If you don’t have a burn building or acquired structure available, try contacting other local departments and partnering with them to develop a program; you may be able to pool your funds to build a burn building or purchase an acquired structure. At the state level, most training facilities have outstanding live-fire programs that will allow you to participate.

As I said before, live-fire training is not an option–it’s mandatory. Training in the same environment in which we work may not guarantee our safety, but it certainly improves the odds in our favor when we step onto the scene of the Big One.

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