Safe & Effective Live Fire Training or Near Miss?

A recent video posted on the firevideo.net [http://firecamera.net/] web brought to mind a number of painful lessons learned regarding live fire training in acquired structures. When watching video of fire training or emergency incidents, it is essential to remember that video provides only one view of the events. This video, titled Probationary Live House Burn shows a live fire evolution from ignition through fire attack with the comment “Burnin up the probies… LOL”.

This video shows multiple fire locations and an extremely substantial fire load (well in excess of what is necessary to bring typical residential compartments to flashover). I am uncertain if the comment posted with the video “burnin up the probies…LOL [laughing out loud]” was posted by an instructor or learner. Likely this is considered as just a joke, but comments like this point to our collective cultural challenges in providing safe and effective live fire training.

Fuel Load & Ventilation in Live Fire Training

NFPA 1403 Standard on Live Fire Training is reasonably explicit regarding the nature of acceptable fuel, extent of fuel load, as well as number and location of fires used for live fire training in acquired structures.

4.3.1 The fuels that are utilized in live fire training evolutions shall have known burning characteristics that are as controllable as possible.

4.2.17 Combustible materials, other than those intended for the live fire training evolution, shall be removed or stored in a protected area to preclude accidental ignition.

4.3.3* Pressure-treated wood, rubber, and plastic, and straw or hay treated with pesticides or harmful chemicals shall not be used.

A.4.3.3 Acceptable Class A materials include pine excelsior, wooden pallets, straw, hay, and other ordinary combustibles.

Fuel materials shall be used only in the amounts necessary to create the desired fire size.

A.4.3.4 An excessive fuel load can contribute to conditions that create unusually dangerous fire behavior. This can jeopardize structural stability, egress, and the safety of participants.

4.3.5 The fuel load shall be limited to avoid conditions that could cause an uncontrolled flashover or backdraft.

4.4.15 Only one fire at a time shall be permitted within an acquired structure.

4.4.16 Fires shall not be located in any designated exit paths.

While quite explicit regarding fuel requirements and limitations, NFPA 1403 (2007) has little to say about the ventilation with the exception of a brief mention that roof ventilation openings that are normally closed but may be opened in an emergency are permitted (not required as many believe). However, the Appendix has a much more important statement regarding the importance of ventilation to fire development:

A.4.3.7 The instructor-in-charge is concerned with the safety of participants and the assessment of conditions that can lead to rapid, uncontrolled burning, commonly referred to as flashover. Flashover can trap, injure, and kill fire fighters. Conditions known to be variables affecting the attainment of flashover are as follows:

(1) The heat release characteristics of materials used as primary fuels

(2) The preheating of combustibles

(3) The combustibility of wall and ceiling materials

(4) The room geometry (e.g., ceiling height, openings to rooms [emphasis added])

In addition, the arrangement of the initial materials to be ignited, particularly the proximity to walls and ceilings, and the ventilation openings [emphasis added] are important factors to be considered when assessing the potential fire growth.

The building in this video appeared to have been used for multiple evolutions prior to the one depicted in the video. A number of the windows appeared to be damaged, providing increased ventilation to support combustion. The fuel load of multiple pallets and excelsior or straw (acceptable types of fuel) provided an excess of fuel required to reach flashover in typical residential rooms (which may have been an intended outcome and level of involvement given the transitional attack (defense to offense)). If in fact the sets were in multiple rooms, this would be inconsistent with the provisions of NFPA 1403 limiting acquired structure evolutions to a single fire.

It is essential for those of us who conduct live fire training to remember that most of the provisions of NFPA 1403 (2007) are based on line-of-duty deaths of our brothers and sisters. Safe and effective live fire training requires that instructors be technically competent, well versed in the requirements or relevant regulations and standards, and that individually and organizationally we have an appropriate attitude towards safe and effective learning and the process of passing on the craft of firefighting.

One useful case to focus discussion of these issues is the death of Firefighter/Paramedic Apprentice Rachael Wilson of the Baltimore City Fire Department:

Live Fire Training: Remember Rachael Wilson

Live Fire Training Part 2: Remember Rachael Wilson

NIOSH Death in the Line of Duty F2007-09

Independent Investigation Report: Baltimore City Fire Department Live Fire Training Exercise

Door Entry

At 4:56 in the video, accumulation of a layer of smoke is clearly visible under the porch roof. No comment is made about this by the instructors and no action is taken to mitigate the hazard. At 5:55, flames exiting a broken window to the left of the door ignite the smoke layer just prior to when the attack team opens the door.

Figure 1. Fire Gas Ignition Sequence

It is essential to recognize that smoke is fuel and that ignition of this gas phase fuel overhead results in a rapid and signfiicant increase in radiant heat flux (which is dependent largely on temperature and proximity). Cooling the gases overhead and use of good door entry technique can minimize risk of this thermal insult to firefighters and potential for transition to other types of extreme fire behavior such as flashover.

Fire Streams

This video also shows some interesting aspects of fire stream application. A solid (or straight) stream can be quite effective in making a direct attack on the fire. However, when the fire is shielded, the effectiveness of this type of stream is limited. While limited steam production is often cited as an advantage of solid (and straight) streams, initial application of water through the doorway in this video results in significant steam production and limited effect on the fire. This is likely due to shielding of the burning fuel by interior configuration and compartmentation. Remember than no single type of fire stream is effective for all applications.

Perspective

Consider the question posed in the title of this post: Was this a safe and effective live fire training session or a near miss? I suspect that the learners in the video enjoyed this live fire training session and that the instructors desired to provide a quality learning experience. It is even likely that this evolution was conducted substantively (but likely not completely) in compliance with the provisions of NFPA 1403. Like most training exercises and emergency incidents, it is easy to watch a video and criticize the actions of those involved. I do not question the intent of those involved in this training exercise, but point to some issues that we (all of us) need to consider and reflect on as we go about our work and pass on the craft to subsequent generations of firefighters.

What’s Next?

I am working hard at getting back into a regular rhythm of posting and hope to have a post looking at another of the Tactical Considerations from the UL ventilation study up within the next week.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO

References

National Fire Protection Association. (2007). NFPA 1403 Standard on live fire training. Quincy, MA: Author.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). (2002). Death in the line of duty, F2007-09. Retrieved February 19, 2009 from http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/pdfs/face200709.pdf

Shimer, R. (2007) Independent investigation report: Baltimore city fire department live fire training exercise 145 South Calverton Road February 9, 2007. Retrieved February 19, 2009 from http://www.firefighterclosecalls.com/pdf/BaltimoreTrainingLODDFinalReport82307.pdf.

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3 Responses to “Safe & Effective Live Fire Training or Near Miss?”

  1. BrianSBFD Says:

    Chief Hartin,
    I used the Thomas Flashover Calc.web site that you gave us during CFBT Instr. class to figure the HRR of a room, but now I cannot find it. Is there something else like it out there?
    Also do have any helpful tips for meeting the requirement of 4.3.5? I now have to build a prop and then do a test burn which isn’t always the best and does not work with an acquired structure. Thanks, Brian

  2. hartin Says:

    Brian, Good to hear from you. I will work one up in Excel and send you a copy. Cheers, Ed

  3. Juan Esteban Kunstmann Says:

    My vote goes to “Near Miss”!
    We as instructors have the responsibility to educate new firefighters in a safe environment and not just put things on fire. The indicators were there, but if instructors don´t really think what they are doing (I`m not saying they were trying to hurt someone), things can and will go wrong.
    Cheers Ed and keep up the good work!

    Juan

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