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Designing Live Fire Training Props

Many of you training officers are probably finishing off budgets and are planning for 2007- 2008 training. I thought it practical to discuss the importance of designing fire props and how we train using those props. Industrial fire-training in many ways is playing catch up with regards to accurately recreating the needs of industry in terms of fire training. In my travels both internationally and domestically I have seen outstanding fire training academies, that design and train realistically based on input from industry. Conversely I have also seen more than my fair share of useless fire training props and training evolutions that add very little value in terms of developing and maintaining industrial firefighting skills.


In the past there were no standards or laws that addressed firefighting practices, safety, or even the impact of firefighting training on the environment. Similarly, for those readers outside of North America, very little to no regulation exists in many countries around the world.  When I worked in Saudi Arabia for example, for the longest time use of breathing apparatus was optional and very limited to no restrictions were placed on what types or quantity of fuels could be burned for training purposes.

In recent years EPA, OSHA, and the NFPA are only a few of the many agencies and associations that help to protect the firefighter and the environment; OSHA and the NFPA now have standards that govern almost every aspect of the emergency responder's job - including training - and the EPA mandates environmental protections that impact the ways live burn props are built, the types of fuels and extinguishing agents that can be used, and require the capture and treatment of run-off.

Training props for industrial firefighters are also influenced, naturally, by the evolution of chemical/petrochemical businesses into a multi-billion dollar industry with complex facilities and processes that pose a variety of potential dangers. Protecting this industry falls to Emergency Response Teams (ERTs). Effective training props for these ERT members must be able to replicate incidents of varying complexity in order to provide a full spectrum of training that puts responders through pre-planning, size-up, and mitigation drills and the use of an incident management system. Flexible training props help ERT members to exercise and develop their skills as they work through evolutions of varying complexity.

Training has proven its value time and again over the years, saving many firefighters' lives during actual emergencies. During a crisis situation, responders must act decisively and with precision; their fundamental skills should not occupy their thoughts at all, freeing them to assess the situation according to its individual complications. The more they have trained the more they can rely on the skills developed through exercise to lead them safely through the incident. Training takes on increased importance as facilities are built with greater complexity and the resulting fires evolve with more complications, while plant personnel suffer reductions - the old days of having 8-10 people on a hose line have been replaced by current staffing levels, which often limit an entire initial response team to 10 or fewer individuals. Contemporary ERTs rely more and more on mutual aid from other departments and nearby facilities; training becomes all the more important when the need for seamless team integration is considered. As budgets are tightened and teams are reduced, training is often seen as an easy budgetary target, but the need for quality training using quality props has never been more pronounced.

The implementation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) is singularly useful for multi-agency response situations. Using NIMS guidelines helps to ensure accountability, safety, scene control, and agency integration; in short, the potential for chaos and confusion at a fire scene increases when outside teams are called to assist, and NIMS helps to minimize that chaos and confusion. This is essential when considering the implementation of the Intelligence function at the scene of a potential terrorist incident. Many Industrial Fire Brigades have limited exposure to working with Law Enforcement at the Federal level in a real-time emergency. Best to know what lies ahead when the FBI show up at your scene and what your roles and responsibilities are. Yet implementing NIMS on-scene requires advance knowledge and practice, and industrial training grounds are the perfect places for studying, practicing, and perfecting NIMS implementation. This is only one example, but a critical example nonetheless, of the increasing need for training as budgets constrict. Don't forget much of the NIMS training is available free! (* See expo program.)

Reductions in force can have a critical impact on the quality and safety of training exercises themselves. As recently as 2006, emergency responders were sustaining injuries and even death during exercises. Training must be provided by qualified instructors using the best training facilities in the world. When either of these requirements is not met, it is our emergency responders who ultimately suffer. Safety among emergency responders tops the list of priorities held by incident commanders and front-line responders alike; when an emergency responder dies during training or an actual incident, all ask if everything possible was done to prevent the tragedy. A key contributor to safe incident operations is the training each responder has had; a key contributor to safe training is the facility and equipment itself. One of the most important elements is the fuel used for training. The old pits, filled with anything that would burn, were extraordinarily dangerous to firefighters and the environment alike. Large clouds of black, brown, and blue smoke carried toxins into the atmosphere, and at times the fires could not be extinguished and were left to slowly burn themselves out. New standards and regulations now dictate that the cleanest and safest fuels be used in training, to protect both the firefighters and the environment from unnecessary and preventable harm. Most industrial props now rely on clean-burning propane and some type of environmentally friendly liquid with predictable behaviors to fuel these training scenarios. Extinguishing materials must be environmentally friendly as well, capable of mitigating the impact of fuel and waste run-off from the prop.

As for the props themselves, a simple key to the design of a good prop is to make it as realistic as possible. The industrial fire prop should represent actual units in the chemical processes, or get as close to replication as is feasible, and the failures should represent actual failures, such as high pressure leaks in pumps and compressors, flange and seal leaks, and leaks in overhead pipe units. The complexity of these failures, all available for scenarios using a single prop, contribute to the realism of replicating crowded industrial facilities, where walkways are small and cluttered, pumps, compressors, and overhead pipe racks are everywhere, and the convoluted layout makes pulling a hose a nightmarish task. Props must contain all of these hazards and obstacles to simulate conditions as realistically as possible, while staying safe for the personnel using the props for training.

The complexity of the prop and its multiple failure points contributes to the practicality of multi-functional training. Diverse clients require diverse training scenarios, and effective training props must be able to accommodate a variety of training needs. With a quick flip of the switch, opening or closing a valve completely changes the prop and the evolutions possible, and scenarios can be constructed that best replicate the situations any given client may encounter at their home facility. There is no reason, for example, for a client to burn LPG during training when all they deal with at their home plant is liquids. As new fuels are developed, props must accommodate them as well as the new techniques that are developed to fight the new kinds of fires. New firefighting equipment is designed and put into use constantly - thermal imaging cameras and firefighting foam are everyday tools used by today's firefighters, and today's industrial props must be capable of supporting scenarios that enable firefighters to train using the latest tools.

Multi-functional props also support pre-planning - a life-saving procedure that has proved over time to be invaluable to the efficiency and safety of incident response operations - and size-up. Industrial fire props give firefighters the opportunity to study a structure with deliberation and care, teaching them how to review a facility and anticipate hazards and failure points. Developing pre-planning proficiency using industrial props on a fire training ground helps firefighters learn how to establish special strategies and tactics needed to combat large industrial fires. Preplanning during training leads directly to incident size-up. Fires are ever-changing: gravity and wind are just two of the conditions an emergency responder must factor into his plans for attacking a fire, and again the industrial fire prop proves invaluable as a tool for teaching responders how to assess all of the conditions at a fire scene that will impact the response planning and operations.

Liability issues are another aspect of training that affects industrial prop design. Training institutes have been held civilly and criminally liable for injuries sustained by students. Props must be constructed and engineered according to the highest standards, and the prop must be maintained and serviced to ensure its structural and operational integrity. NFPA and OSHA both offer standards that alleviate the possibility for injury at a training facility. NFPA 600 defines fire brigade training centers, NFPA 1981 defines minimum standards for interior and exterior fire brigades, and NFPA 1043, the newest standard, regulates procedures for interior attacks. These standards, together with a high level of instruction and training using cutting edge props designed to protect the trainee and the trainer, ensure that our emergency responders will continue to receive the best training possible.

I hope you all had a safe and happy holiday and all the best in training for 2007. This year  I will have a few multipart articles on training with specific focus on topics of interest to the readership.

Comments? Questions? Is there an Industrial Fire Training topic you would like to see covered in this column? Please email me at Attila Hertelendy is an instructor with the University of Nevada, Reno - Fire Science Academy and President and CEO of Great White Emergency Medical Solutions, Inc. a training and emergency response planning company.


P: (979) 690-7559
F: (979) 690-7562

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