Live-Fire Training in Acquired Structures

Beyond traditional helmets and smooth-bore nozzles, the most controversial subject in the firehouse is live-fire training. This issue polarizes training officers and departments, and for good reason.

I live and work in Colorado, a state well known for many firsts in fire service training and certification. For example, NFPA 1403: Standard on Live-Fire Training Evolutions, has its roots in Colorado–but this is a “first” many in Colorado would prefer to forget. The standard, like most, is written in blood. In 1982, an explosion occurred during a simple smoke training drill in a small outbuilding in Boulder, killing William Duran and Scott Smith and injuring other trainees. At the time, it was the nation’s deadliest fire training accident. It spawned investigations and discussions that led to the creation of the NFPA live-fire training standard.

Most of us accept fixed facilities as reasonable facsimiles to the fireground. But add the words “acquired structure” to “live fire” and you’ll get a very different reaction. Some take the hard line, forbidding acquired structure training in their departments, while others will do almost anything to throw the match.

Some trainers and chiefs will argue that live-fire training provides the only realistic and relevant training firefighters receive today. Many will even turn their heads from the requirements of 1403 to burn an acquired structure. But we cannot, and must not, support procedures violating this sacred standard.

I’ve worked with those on both sides of this controversial issue, and I’ve learned that true leaders and visionaries are able to objectively analyze the role of live-fire training in today’s fire service. The advocacy these trainers and chiefs demonstrate for live-fire training is admirable. I wholeheartedly support their promotion of live fire training, and ask that we approach the opportunity with our eyes wide open.

As a fire service leader, you have both the responsibility to protect firefighters and the duty to support realistic and relevant training. The views presented above represent two ends of the spectrum. Is it possible to safely conduct quality live-fire training in acquired structures? I propose it is.

What’s a Secondary Search?
Let’s first talk about the fixed facility. If used safely and properly, these buildings are the workhorse behind fire service training. Many states require a live burn for initial firefighter certification and periodic burns for recertification. Fixed facilities are essential to this end; however, they do have limitations.

One major problem with traditional concrete “burn buildings” is the lack of imagination and flexibility in their design. These concrete bunkers have predictable floor plans and offer few scenario variations. As a result, one common disservice we impart to firefighters is rooted in this building: a lack of understanding about the secondary search.

In the 600-square-foot fixed facility where I completed recruit training, I learned a great deal: fire attack, ventilation, platooning the line, communications, search, and rescue. But I never conducted an appropriate secondary search in this building, or even learned the difference between a primary and a secondary search.

As a recruit eagerly declaring “primary complete,” I was immediately ordered to conduct a “secondary.” The drillmaster didn’t intend to confuse me, he intended to re-enforce an essential fireground task (and to keep me busy). What he mistakenly taught me was a secondary search looked a lot like a primary. Our crew of recruits may have traveled to the second floor to complete the secondary, but the smoke and building conditions we encountered were nearly identical to those encountered on the primary. As a result, the hundreds of secondary searches I conducted were nothing more than repeated primary searches.

By the conclusion of recruit school, I touched each of the 600 square feet in the burn building hundreds of times. I knew every possible victim location. If asked to search that building today, I’m confident I could find a poker chip in black-out conditions. It wasn’t until my on-the-job training with incredible company officers that I truly learned the difference between a primary and secondary search. The rescue of savable victims in probable locations is dramatically different from the recovery of bodies after a fire is controlled. This is one of many examples where acquired structures exceed fixed facilities to support learning.

Firefighters must experience live fire to learn how to be safe and effective. Depriving them of the opportunity to train with live fire is unconscionable, in my opinion. Progressive design of fixed facilities increases flexibility and realism. Whether gas fires or Class A, the foundational elements of live-fire training are supported in fixed facilities. But in all honesty, although fixed facilities provide a foundation for further learning, they’re not the “be all, end all” in live-fire training.

Safety & Certification
The balance between realism and safety is the fine line we walk as training officers, particularly when conducting live-fire training in acquired structures. NFPA 1403 provides much needed guidance on live-fire training and how to safely conduct it, but there’s a lot more that training officers can do to ensure safety during live-fire training. For example, attend a live-fire training course. A solid foundation in live-fire training can be achieved by attending a reputable live-fire training course, many of which are presented across the nation. The International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) is one of several organizations providing quality training for live-fire instructors.

Many states are now embracing certification for live-fire instructors. Florida law requires live-fire training instructors to obtain special certification by completing a 40-hour course. (Colorado is actually the first state to offer an accredited live-fire instructor certification–a first we are proud of).

The Division of Fires Safety (DFS) issues Colorado’s firefighting certifications, which are accredited by the International Fire Service Accreditation Congress (IFSAC). Accrediting agencies, like IFSAC and the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications (Pro Board), serve as third-party validation for certification. Without their stamp of approval, certifications lack the validation for acceptance outside the issuing jurisdiction.

I applaud IFSAC’s willingness to embrace this “elephant in the room” for fire service training. NFPA 1403 is not a professional qualification (pro-qual), therefore, it’s often avoided by other accrediting agencies. This first live fire training evolution instructor certification is paving the way for other states, and accrediting bodies, to embrace live fire training.

Note: As instructors, we owe an incredible debt to the pioneers of live-fire instructor training, as well as those serving on the NFPA 1403 committee. Their decisions and actions have saved countless lives. And it is because of them that professional fire service trainers now have the proper tools at their disposal to present cogent arguments for live-fire training.

The knowledge, skills and abilities learned in live-fire training cannot be learned through simulation. But live-fire training, even in fixed facilities, is safer and more effective when conducted by educated facilitators. Credentialed instructors and comprehensive plans documenting NFPA 1403 compliance transform the safety hurdles associated with using acquired structures into benchmarks to be achieved. Armed with standards, textbooks and most importantly, education, instructors now have the ability to greatly advance and improve live-fire training.

A comprehensive NFPA 1403-compliant training evolution in an acquired structure is the pinnacle of live fire training. NFPA 1403 ensures the safety and effectiveness of the experience. These structures are difficult to find and expensive to prepare, and they require a disciplined team of professionals that can safely and effectively execute the training evolutions. But this investment pays dividends far beyond the costs. With proper safety guidelines enforced and certified instructors, live-fire training in acquired structures can mean the difference between a firefighter who’s prepared for the reality of the fireground and one who isn’t. So the next time the issue of live-fire training comes up in your firehouse, be smart, be progressive and be safe.

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