The Training Paradox

No single fire service activity can make a greater impact on firefighter safety and survival than training. Training should be a safe activity where firefighters can learn how to perform their duties the right way in a subdued and controlled environment. But this isn’t always the case. At least two firefighters have already died in training this year.

No single fire service activity can make a greater impact on firefighter safety and survival than training. Training should be a safe activity where firefighters can learn how to perform their duties the right way, in a subdued and controlled environment. But this isn’t always the case. At least two firefighters have already died in training this year.

It’s an interesting paradox: Training is supposed to be safe and controlled; however, according to the NFPA, 100 firefighters died during training between 1996 and 2005. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of these deaths were related to stress and overexertion–issues that largely affect middle-aged firefighters. And many of those who perished had known, pre-existing cardiovascular conditions.

Further, a significant percentage of firefighters are killed during live-fire training exercises. Many case reports of fatalities demonstrate a lack of compliance with NFPA 1403: Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions. Some fire officers charged with oversight of live burns in which a firefighter fatality occurred are now facing criminal charges, or are already incarcerated on manslaughter or negligent homicide charges.

Clearly these issues highlight the need to ramp up our efforts to train safely. However, the fire service is sending mixed messages: Risk management and rules of engagement are preached, but at a fundamental, grassroots level, firefighters are still being taught aggressive interior strategies. With this in mind, let’s review some strategies we can employ to improve training safety.

 

Culture Change

Executive fire officers must exhibit the “courage to be safe” by disallowing unsafe practices and encouraging successful training strategies. Firefighter Life Safety Initiative No. 1 states, “Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety, incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility.” To really push this cultural change, officers must demonstrate true leadership attributes through training oversight, controlling training evolutions and abruptly halting dangerous scenarios.

 

Health Issues

Strenuous training programs must be evaluated for their overall benefit and not constructed merely to maximize endurance. It’s unreasonable to expect an obviously physically unfit firefighter to be stressed to the limit without consequences. After all, a clear connection has been established between cardiovascular disease and stress-related fatalities. As such, the fire service should consider its ethical responsibility in allowing firefighters with heart disease or who are physically unfit to participate in strenuous physical activity.

 

Safe Environments & Equipment

All training has inherent risks, especially live-fire training. In a 2005 document, NIOSH categorized fire buildings as either acquired or designed and approved. Acquired buildings yield greater risk because they are usually abandoned structures that feature the hazards we typically encounter at a structure fire. Training fires in these structures behave as they would at any other structure fire, and strategies and tactics must therefore follow structural rules of engagement. Further, if a training fire must be set in this venue, the safety precautions outlined in NFPA 1403 must be followed to allow for the best possible outcome. Clearly, buildings designed and approved for live burn training are favored.

In addition, using natural gas- or propane-fueled props allows for a greater safety margin than burning combustible material. Gas-fueled props incorporate emergency shut-offs, sensors, “dead-man” switches and the like to almost instantaneously eliminate flame in an emergency. In addition to this obvious advantage, these types of props involve less clean-up time, are more environmentally safe, and multiple evolutions can be completed in a short period.

 

Miscellaneous

Additional ways to make training safer:

  • All training should incorporate the proper application and use of personal protective equipment.
  • Training leaders must identify clear objectives at the onset of any drill or evolution.
  • Evolutions must be performed until error free to prevent marginal performances from becoming the standard.

 

Train Safe!

Practical experience on the fireground is eroding as the total number of structure fires decrease. Thus, it’s imperative that training be as realistic as possible. However, with realism comes responsibility. Training environments can be extremely dangerous and, therefore, the risks to firefighters must be mitigated as much as possible. Keep the abovementioned items in mind when planning or engaged in training. After all, the last thing we want to read is a headline that states, “Firefighter Dies in Training.” It’s such a waste.

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