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Old Dogs and New Tricks

There was a time when the technology inherent in the fire service was a rather static entity. Fire suppression methodology could be summarized in the classic instruction supposedly given to a new rookie; "put the wet stuff on the red stuff". Training sessions were simply repeats of what had been done and said for years; something to be endured to satisfy some regulation or other and gotten over with as soon as possible. This is no longer the case.

Today's fire suppression techniques are the products of creative innovation employed to solve an emergentĀ  problem. These problems, in turn, have their genesis in the non-stop evolution of new commodities to be found in the work place, in transportation and in the market place; an evolution which is occurring at an ever increasing pace. Today's fire fighter routinely encounters commodities that did not exist a few years ago and next year he may very likely find himself dealing with some that don't exist today. Commonly encountered commodities may undergo changes in formulation that will impact the way they react and the manner of controlling them when they are involved in a fire situation or other incident.

Motor fuel is a case in point. The advent of the automobile brought with it the need to store and dispense large quantities of very volatile gasoline in the local community. Community fire fighters soon learned that fires involving this highly flammable commodity could not be effectively suppressed with the conventional straight water streams, then the mainstay of most fire brigades because gasoline is insoluble and floats on water. As firefighters tried to use such streams to extinguish gasoline fires, instead they fill up the container and spread the fire throughout the area.

Home grown ingenuity came to the rescue and fire fighting foams were developed to effectively extinguish gasoline fires, but they brought with them the need to train responders who were going to be expected to use the newly introduced methodology. Now, in an effort to protect our environment and reduce our country's dependence on foreign oil, ethanol a.k.a. ethyl alcohol is being added to our motor fuel. This puts a new spin on applicable fire suppression techniques. Alcohol is polar and therefore water soluble; so, as the proportion of ethanol increases, as it is expected to do as new cars equipped to burn ethanol or ethanol/gasoline mixtures appear in the market place, motor fuel will become more soluble in water and will require a polar liquid (alcohol type) foam that is compatible with both polar and non-polar liquids for effective fire suppression. This will necessitate a revision in our thinking regarding how we deal with conflagrations involving motor fuel. Somebody needs to impart this information to the man on the end of the hose line and the procedure for doing it is called training.

Hydrogen fluoride, (HF) a.k.a hydrofluoric acid, a laboratory curiosity only decades ago andĀ  thought to be entirely too reactive to have any significant industrial use, is now an important component in the process used for making lead-free gasoline. It is now a routine article of commerce on our highways and railroads along with hydrogen cyanide and phosgene. Local firefighters must now be trained and equipped to deal with such hazardous commodities as well as others to numerous to list.

Compressed air foams suitable for filling voids and confined spaces came on the scene in the late seventies and early eighties. Along with them came the need for instruction i.e. training in the use of this new innovation and the operation of the equipment involved with its application for those who are to be expected to utilize the technique at a working fire or HazMat incident.

The continual introduction of new materials and techniques to deploy them has engendered the need for continual "updating" of response personnel through training programs both formal and informal. To be effective a training program, whether a series of sessions or a single presentation must include the following characteristics:

  1. The subject must be germane to the venue in which it is being presented. Train on the equipment your ERT uses! Don't try to use a canned presentation and then alter it to fit.
  2. Do training must be given BEFORE the new technology is deployed. The last thing you want to hear on the way to a working response is something like: "Oh, by the way, we put those new foam proportioners on the trucks yesterday, we haven't gotten around to holding a drill on them yet but they are pretty straight forward, you can figure it out." Don't laugh, it happens.
  3. Instruction must be "hands on". Equipment has a certain "feel" to it when it is operating properly. Any experienced MPO can tell by the sound of his pump and engine how his unit is doing and probably as soon or sooner than his gage panel will confirm his assessment. Instruction must actually be "hands on." A demonstration can show the proper technique is not, in itself, sufficient. "Hands on" means each and every person can be expected to use whatever it is that is being introduced and the "hands on" period needs to be long enough so that each responder can become comfortable with whatever is being introduced. This need for "hands on" familiarity is not restricted to fire-ground hardware. New or upgraded computer software or a new incident report form require the same familiarization if they are to be effective when they are deployed.Working fires or a hazmat incidents can move rapidly. Major change in the situation can occur almost instantaneously. There is no time to fumble around and figure out how to operate new equipment. Things happen fast and quick reaction can spell the difference in success or failure, safety and injury, or even death. Training needs to be thorough to the extent that response becomes almost automatic and instantaneous.
  4. Training must be given by quality instructors. Find someone within the organization who has a talent for teaching and let him teach. If training sessions are made interesting, and germane, resistance on the part of the trainees will become minimal. A willing learner will be more likely to retain and later apply what is taught.

    To achieve this purpose we must "train the trainer". Any instructor needs to be familiar with what he is trying to teach. A designated instructor should be afforded the opportunity for training by knowledgeable individuals. If it means that the instructor must be sent back to the factory to be oriented on a new piece of equipment, so be it. This is a part of the cost of doing business and it will pay off in increased efficiency of operation as well as increased safety and reduction of injury to personnel.

  5. Training programs must be adequately funded. Training is as much a part of the organization as is fuel, utilities, equipment replacement and maintenance, or any other budget item. Expendables needed for adequate training must be provided, adequate visual aid equipment needs to be made available. This is an ongoing expense. Bite the bullet and purchase equipment compatible with computer programs such as PowerPoint or Presentations and current, relevant training aids.
  6. Refreshers are needed, both for men and machinery. This is particularly true for techniques and equipment that are necessary but seldom used. Get them out periodically to allow personnel to practice using them. If and when the day comes when it is actually needed there won't be time for O.J.T. ("on-the-job-training"). This will also provide an opportunity to check to see that all the components of the equipment are operational and that any consumable items or those that are subject to deterioration are not outdated or otherwise unusable.


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