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Peter Sells Flashpoint Blog

Thoughts on live fire training

Written by Peter Sells   
June 15, 2011 - One quick line of text that caught my attention earlier this week: Explosion, Gravenhurst, Ontario Fire College (training tower). No injuries.

The reason that bit of news stood out for me, aside from the fact that I have been in that very tower on occasion, was that I know the Ontario Fire College would be just about the last location at which fire instructors would use flammable liquids to get a fire going. Such a practice is forbidden under NFPA 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions, and, more importantly, under fire-service health and safety guidelines maintained by the Ontario Ministry of Labour. At a provincial training facility with a reputation for diligence, taking dangerous shortcuts would be unexpected, to say the least.

Well, shame on me. You know what they say about assumptions, right? Not to usurp the duties of the investigators for this incident, but it appears that the cause of the explosion was entirely different than as I had assumed. What is more likely, according to a description I received of the incident, is that the concrete under the burn pad on which a training fire was set became superheated and spalled. Essentially, that means that the water within the concrete rapidly converted to steam and the concrete exploded. It blew with enough force that some of the fire bricks in the pad flew up to ceiling height. Fortunately, nobody was near enough to be injured, but I bet some shorts needed changing.

This incident is a great example of the costs and dangers of operating and maintaining class-A burn buildings. We have yet to create materials that are completely impervious to the effects of fire, let alone repeated cycles of extreme heat, extreme cold and saturation with water. Burn buildings have a finite lifespan of safe use, after which they start to fall apart like a Ford Pinto. Maintenance costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars are routine. Been there, done that. Don’t even get me started on burning acquired structures, that’s a topic for another day.

As a wise man once wrote:

Live fire training is a waste of time, in most cases. If you want your people to learn how to pull hose into a building, have them pull hose into a building – up the stairs, proper carry, on the correct shoulder as you go up the fire escape; all the old drills. If you don’t have that stuff down pat, what purpose does it serve to have a fire burning? If you need to work on hose streams, why do it in the dark? If you need dark conditions for search and rescue, a smoke machine or blacked-out facepieces would be way cheaper and way, way safer than burning an acquired structure.

I challenge anyone to look at the line-of-duty deaths that have occurred at fires in Canada over the last 30 years or so, and find one that demonstrated that firefighters need more task-level training at live fires. Our fallen comrades have been lost or improperly accounted for (North York, Kitchener), trapped in structural collapses (Barrie), placed in unnecessarily aggressive positions (Yellowknife, Etobicoke), caught in flashovers or untenable fire conditions (Winnipeg, St. Thomas) or otherwise victimized by tactical or strategic decision making that did not match the situation. Some instances are understandable, given the rapidly changing and chaotic environment in the first few minutes at a structure fire. We can be placed in danger beyond our ability to recognize it as such in our haste to make a fast rescue. But some of these deaths were the result of bad decisions, pure and simple.


OK, you caught me. That was from my March 2009 FlashPoint column. Let me update the list of line-of-duty deaths by reflecting on the tragedy in Listowel, Ont., in March. If firefighters see fire coming from the roof of a commercial structure and yet there is no smoke or only light smoke showing in the interior, they must be able to rapidly conclude that the fire is burning above the ceiling and has involved the roof structure. This breadth and depth of competency will not take place through “fun” activities like live fire training, rather through mundane development of skills and knowledge in building construction, fire-ground size-up, and tactical decision making.

You have limited resources, time and money for training your people. Spend it where you will get the most return.

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