Keeping your firefighters safe during training seems like a no-brainer for chief fire officers. But every year, there are accidents, injuries and deaths in the training environment—incidents that could have been prevented. As Gordon Graham says, “If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.”
Know NFPA 1500
As chiefs, it’s up to us to lead our departments’ training programs. I don’t mean lead the actual evolutions (although there’s a lot of value in doing some of that, too); I mean ensure your instructors are current on the safest and most valuable training methods. Your firefighters deserve the best training you can provide, but they also deserve to stay safe at the same time.
For the fire chief, there’s no better guideline for ensuring safety in training than NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, specifically Chapter 5: Training, Education and Professional Development. The stated goal of your program should mirror section 5.1.1: “The fire department shall establish and maintain a training and education program with a goal of preventing occupational deaths, injuries, and illnesses.” This standard lists the minimum requirements for firefighting and emergency medical training, including a professional development program designed to keep your members’ skills current. Keep in mind that any training should also include your department’s written policies and procedures as well as guidelines related to infection control, incident management and respiratory protection.
Ensure They Know the Basics
One way to ensure safety is to keep your firefighters refreshed on the “basics” of the job. Establish a standards evolution manual or curriculum. It’s a simple process to use the most current evolution from the firefighter training courses currently available. NFPA 1500 recommends that basic skills for each position should be developed and that your members should perform them at least annually. When firefighters are well versed on the basics of their jobs, they can perform these skills without thinking about them, which allows them to concentrate instead on the overall situation.
One way to capture the attention of today’s firefighters is to use interactive video-based programs. Issue each firefighter a DVD that demonstrates your department’s expected standard evolutions—evolutions like SCBA basics, hoseline deployment, ground and aerial ladder placement, ventilation techniques, forcible-entry tactics, etc. Then each month, have your training officers select some of the evolutions and have the companies perform them either at your training center or at the station—in a non-punitive, safe environment.
The #1 cause of near-miss incidents on the fireground continues to be loss of situational awareness, and this can just as easily happen in training. Having good situational awareness in training basically means the incident commander (IC) and safety officer (or instructor in charge) must make use of the information presented to them and avoid distractions, especially during the most routine training evolutions. After all, we all know that losing focus on the fireground or at training can be deadly.
One way to train on situational awareness is to have some mundane issue interjected during a training scenario so you can observe if the instructor or safety officer becomes distracted. For example, walk up to the command post and engage the IC in conversation not related to the scenario, or send a page or text message to the safety officer to see if they check the message. The point is to show how easy it is to become distracted and lose focus.
Additionally, every member of the department should be allowed to ask questions about the situations they face, thus implementing a culture of openness in communications throughout the training ground that will ultimately transfer to the fireground.
Live burns are dangerous training environments, and having a dedicated burn building that can be somewhat controlled is far safer than an acquired structure. If you do choose to use the acquired structure, follow NFPA 1403: Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions to the letter.
Some of the most critical safety functions for a live burn include two safety officers for each evolution, one for outside safety and one on the interior, working as a team with the ignition officer. Ensure your personnel have adequate rehab set up, including taking each person’s vital signs prior to conducting the exercises.
Also make sure that everyone does a walk-through of the building and a talk-through of the scenarios before lighting the first fire. After training, gather everyone together to review the lessons and get feedback and comments from everyone.
Train the Trainers
How do you train your safety officers? Begin by conducting a recognized safety officer training program. Two excellent examples are the NFA Incident Safety Officer course or the FDSOA ISO course. From those beginnings, you can start a department safety officer training and continuing education program to keep your safety officers as current as possible. (Yes, you must continue to train!) For more information on either of these programs, visit their websites: www.fdsoa.org and www.usfa.dhs.gov/nfa.
Safety and training should always go hand in hand. There is no excuse for unsafe practices on the training grounds; unsafe behavior will only serve to cause injuries and worse at actual events. With that in mind, ensure your training officers adopt your philosophy of a safe training environment; it will serve to make your incident scenes as safe as they can be.