Fire Fighting in Canada

The challenges of acquired structure training


The challenges of acquired structure training
Mark van der Feyst addresses the fire-service debate over the value of live burns in the July issue of Canadian Firefighter and EMS Quarterly.

July 6, 2010  By Mark van der Feyst

Hydraulic ventilation being practised once fire knockdown was achieved.  Photo by Mark van der Feyst


July 2010 – With the decrease in the number of structural fires that departments attend each year comes complacency and rustiness. The fire service is seeing fewer fires than it did even 10 years ago. The lack of exposure and continual practice of our bread-and-butter operations is breeding a generation of firefighters who are deficient in structural fire fighting.

Structural fire fighting is a high-risk, low-frequency event and it seems that when we do respond to structural fires there is no time to think about the risks. This is a dangerous time, especially if our firefighting skills are rusty.

There seems to be a movement in the fire service to get away from live fire training. Structural fire fighting is a culmination of our basic skills that must be exercised consistently and constantly. We must be able to react without thinking, to react in a habitual way that allows us to operate safely, efficiently and effectively. We seem to focus our attention on other high-risk events such as water rescue, trench rescue, confined space rescue and rope rescue. While these events certainly deserve our attention and practice, these kinds of calls do not happen every day. When was the last time your department responded to one of these special events? When was the last time you responded to a structural fire call? We all know the answer to this: structural fire calls occur more often than special technical rescue events. So why are we moving away from live fire training?
There are two ways to conduct live fire training, in fixed facilities or in acquired structures. Many large and medium-sized fire departments have live burn towers in their municipalities. These towers are considered fixed facilities. They are made of concrete with special linings inside or of metal fabrication with special heat absorbing linings on the inside. They can be Class A type structures, in which only Class A combustibles are burned, or they can be propane fed. Either way, they offer an environment that is somewhat realistic, with real heat and flame. The drawback to a fixed facility is that there is a high safety factor built in with regards to building integrity and there is little chance of building collapse. The stairs are constructed industrially to withstand heat and firefighter weight; the walls, ceiling and floor are similarly built. Most firefighters do not think about checking the floors or sounding the steps in a fixed facility because they know that the danger is extremely low.


The drawback of a propane-fed tower, of course, is that the fire is not real. There are flames, but with the turn of a switch or the push of a button, the flame disappears. Did the attack crew really suppress the fire? In a Class A burn tower, the fire is real and requires real water to suppress it. An advantage of a fixed burn facility is that it will last and will be there the next day and the next. This offers year-round training for live fire as well as other areas. Fixed facilities are a popular choice because of their safety value and the ability to offer year-round training.

Photos by Mark van der Feyst
The command post, which has the accountability board. All personnel on scene participating in the training exercise had their accountability tags checked in at the command post.
 A ladder was secured on the “B” side for a secondary means of egress. The charged handline was provided for instructor protection when igniting the fires.


An acquired structure is a residential building that was, at one time, occupied by people, and is now being used for fire department training. Many fire departments are shying away from using acquired structures for live fire training because they say it isn’t safe. In my opinion, acquired structures can offer a very safe environment and a realistic training opportunity.

Acquired structures offer such  benefits as realistic floor conditions, realistic ceilings with either lath and plaster or drywall, realistic attic conditions, realistic stair conditions and realistic fire behaviour conditions. An acquired structure can offer a full day or two (depending upon the size of the structure) of realistic live fire training. The fire is real and, if not controlled or suppressed, will burn down the house. Firefighters who enter the structure need to be aware of their surroundings, pay attention to the heat and smoke conditions, read the building, sound the floor in front of them, sound the steps as they ascend and descend, and make sure they find the fire. This is as real as it gets. An acquired structure can offer a safe environment that produces a realistic training opportunity but there is a high level of risk and danger. Controlling the risk and managing the danger is essential.

Firefighters have died during live fire training at fixed facilities and acquired structures. People generally associate these deaths with acquired structures but there is evidence to show that a fixed facility is just as dangerous and can take the life of a firefighter just as easily as an acquired structure. In 2005, a captain died in a fixed facility in Pennsylvania due to a failure of his face peice during the last fire evolution of the day; he was one of the instructors. It is no wonder that many fire department are reluctant to use fixed facilities and acquired structures. 

One department that is taking a proactive approach to live fire training is the Six Nations Fire Department near Brantford, Ont. It is in the midst of conducting a Firefighter 1 certification class for 22 of its members. The goal is to have all 22 members certified as NFPA 1001 Firefighter Level 1 through the Office of the Ontario Fire Marshal by the end of 2010, and the other half of the department certified by 2011. The program began in February 2010. Part of the year-long initiative is a live fire training phase that includes three live burns in acquired structures on the reserve.

There is a lot of planning and preparation for these live burns to be conducted safely. In this case, there was about 40 hours of planning and preparation with Fire Chief Mike Seth and designated Training Officer Vince Martin for just one live burn day. The planning and preparation was conducted in accordance to NFPA 1403 guidelines and any other local/provincial requirements. 

Preparation begins with an inspection of the acquired structure to answer the question, “Can this structure be used for live fire training?” We are concerned with the structural stability of the structure: Are the floors sound and solid? Are the walls and ceiling intact and not compromised? Are the stairs solid? How big are the windows on the second floor (secondary means of egress)? Are there two doorways on the first floor? Are the windows obstructed? Is the roof in good condition and not sagging? And is there a chimney inside or outside the house?

We are also concerned with the contents of the structure. Any carpeting, furniture, clothing and garbage has to be removed. The access to the structure has to be cleared as well. There cannot be any obstructions around the structure, such as trees blocking the windows, garbage around the outside of the house, abandoned vehicles parked nearby or anything that may hinder free access.

If the structure has a basement, there cannot be any flammable or combustible liquids stored. Commonly found items such as furnace oil storage tanks must be pumped out and removed. Any water that may be in the basement must be pumped out to prevent anyone from falling through the floor and drowning. During the inspection, it is important to make sure there are no exposures to be concerned about, that the utilities have been disconnected, and that the effects of the smoke will not impact the surrounding area.  

Once the inspection has been completed, a floor plan is drawn, along with a site plan to determine fire locations, placement of apparatus, placement and number of hoselines, staging areas for RIT, equipment, rehab and parking. The floor plan will indicate the number of pallets and straw bales needed for fuel. We are able determine the required water flow based on the size of the structure and any exposures. This will tell us the number and type of apparatus needed.

The lead instructor needs to select and appoint a safety officer to help with the planning and preparation of the exercise, and assistant instructors. The assistant instructors will supervise the various assigned task groups during each evolution. These instructors need to be well trained in live fire training. Usually they are well known to the lead instructor and work well together. The number of instructors is based on the number of students. A minimum of 15 students is needed to make sure the exercise runs smoothly. An instructor ratio of 1:5 is required for any high-risk training. For live fire training, a minimum of seven instructors is needed. I use between seven and 12 instructors for all live fire training. This allows me to cycle instructors in and out of rehab and provides extra hands for any unexpected problems.

Notifications are sent out to fire dispatch, students, police if needed, and the surrounding residents about the live fire training day. The students undergo a four-hour, in-class theory session covering the important aspects of structural fire fighting, including a review of building construction, fire behaviour, safety on the fire ground and individual roles for assigned tasks.

Each student is then sent for baseline vitals taken by EMS so that when medical monitoring is being conducted on the training day, EMS will have a set of vitals for

comparison. The students also have their gear inspected to ensure that all components are present, to ensure proper fit and to make sure there are no compromises in gear integrity.

The day before the training exercise, wet line drills are conducted during which students practise the required tasks without live fire. Advancing of hose lines, practising of search, hydraulic ventilation and raising ladders are all reviewed so that the students know what exactly they will be doing during the live fire training. This exercise includes a complete walk-through of the structure.

On the day of live fire training, a couple of hours first thing in the morning are dedicated to setting up all required staging areas, establishing required water supply, parking all needed apparatus, setting up rehab along with EMS, getting hose lines in position and ensuring correct water flow and pressure. An instructor briefing and student safety briefing are conducted and the safety officer does a last-minute check to verify that all needed components are in place.

 A lot of work is involved in making sure that a day of live fire training goes smoothly and that all are safe and accounted for. What I have described here is an abbreviated version of actual events. There are a lot of finer details that must be addressed and included. This is in no way a recipe to follow when considering conducting a live fire training day. If you are considering planning a live training day, contact someone who has done it before to get their guidance.

As mentioned, live fire training is a dangerous, high-risk event but with proper and thorough planning and preparation, a safe training day can be conducted if the time is taken and the proper guidance is given. There is much value gained with live fire training and the fire service should be embracing it, not parting from it.       
Mark van der Feyst is an 11-year veteran of the fire service. He works for the City of Woodstock Fire Department in Ontario. Mark is an instructor teaching in both Canada and the U.S. He is a local level suppression instructor for the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy, an instructor for the Justice Institute of BC and a professor of fire science for Lambton College. He can be contacted at

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