During these years, our state fire academy had a very small career staff and a huge adjunct faculty that conducted training nearly every weekend, moving from district to district all across the state. Most of these district training schools were acquired structure burns. There was a long rite of passage in becoming a live fire instructor. It included becoming a basic fire instructor first, then completing the acquired structural fire control course and interning as an assistant instructor until the lead instructor was satisfied that you knew what you were doing. This internship meant a whole lot of sleeping on the hotel floors of the lead instructors (the interns did not get paid, nor did they receive any expense money). It meant chopping up thousands of pallets, clearing out bee nests, cutting overgrown shrubs, removing carpet and building contents, setting up burn barrels, and filling Indian backpacks or water cans with diesel fuel.
Each acquired structure burn included a live fire behavior demonstration done in one of the rooms. During this lesson, a group of students would sit around the perimeter and the instructor would ignite the stack of pallets and hay and explain the fire progression from incipient to free burning. Students would be instructed to take their gloves off and slowly lift their hand into the smoke layer to feel the difference in temperature. The instructor pointed out the air flow pattern coming in low and going out over our heads. Emphasis was always put on explaining the thermal balance and the importance of NOT interrupting that. Then, the instructor would demonstrate a direct attack at the base of the fire with a quick sweep of the nozzle. Next, he would demonstrate bouncing the water off the ceiling to cool the gases and then sweep down to the fire. Each time he would let the fire build back up, reinforcing what was happening. The final demonstration was to show you why not to open a fog stream inside. The instructor would say, “OK, when I open the nozzle on fog it will totally disrupt the thermal balance, and it’s going to get a little uncomfortable in here. Once I do this, I want you to stay low and crawl back out of the room single file and exit the structure.” This was all done without breathing apparatus the first few years of my service. Then, around 1988, we started requiring the students and instructors to wear full personal protective equipment to meet the changing standards. While necessary, this improved safety but did diminish the experience for the student.
Several horrible acquired structure burns in various parts of the country led to serious injuries and deaths. None of these training sessions followed the recommendations of National Fire Protection Association 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions, and soon a large contingent of fire service leaders were calling for the end of acquired structure burns. About this time, new government regulations were making it hard to burn in many areas. These regulations included air quality issues that required all roofing materials to be removed prior to burning. In addition, any asbestos materials, typically siding, flooring, and roof vents, had to be removed. What was once a house that some homeowner wanted gone and could ask the fire department to come burn it down now became a permitted, expensive transaction.
The trend of acquired structural burns began to diminish for a couple of main reasons. The first was the hoops that had to be jumped through to permit the burn, and the second was the fear from some leadership that these sessions were too dangerous. This trend has continued, and for the majority of departments the acquired structure burn is a thing of the past – or at best a very rare occurrence.
The lessons learned as both a student and an instructor in the acquired structure burns that were conducted with competent instructors following and exceeding standards were undoubtedly the best educational experience for understanding fire behavior, fire attack, and residential building construction. As an instructor, you were skilled in using the building construction, controlling ventilation that included closing doors and windows, and precutting roof vent holes along with precutting attic access with ladders with staged hoselines in place to maximize the use of the structure. Through this process, a house could be used for multiple burns over several days, providing realistic fires and experiences for the students.
Most of these lessons are now attempted in either a class A or B burn building along with a PowerPoint® presentation – or not at all. While there is certainly value in these types of training buildings, they do not create realistic conditions and can’t adequately serve as a replacement or substitute for acquired structure live fire training. Good instructors explain differences, but the actual tactics and acts of the student register and resurface in our recognition primed decision making minds. I have seen it 1,000 times. The water flow needed to knock out the pallet fire in the corner consists of about a three to four second flow followed by a loud, “OK, OK, shut it off. Don’t put my fire out!” from the instructor who worked hard to get that bed of coals for easy reload and reignition. Unfortunately, the student leaves with that experience and then applies the same three to four seconds of water on real fire in a real structure and it doesn’t work. The crew gets stuck in the hallway calling for ventilation because it’s getting “hot in here.” Meanwhile, a good 30 to 40 seconds of flow would probably cool the environment and, dare I say, put the fire out.
Learning To Walk
Is the lack of acquired structure training related to the spike in injuries, deaths, and close calls over the past two decades? Does the buzz about fire research and “new” discoveries come from the lack of fire behavior training once gained in acquired structure training? Does the military stop using live fire rounds in training after a training accident that resulted in a death or an injury of a trainee? No. Are pilots allowed to fly passengers without ever flying a real plane? No. Are surgeons allowed to operate on live patients without first performing procedures on cadavers? No. Are firefighters allowed to respond to and attack fires in structures without ever doing so in a real structure? Yes.
I encourage all fire service leaders to identify or develop competent acquired structure live fire instructors, find areas where you can take advantage of acquired structure burns (even if it’s outside your response area), and send as many of your members to this training as often as you can. Some will say it is too risky, but they have no problem sending the same individuals to real uncontrolled fires without the experience they need to be competent and confident in their abilities. I can’t guarantee that it won’t be without an injury here or there, whether it be a sprain, break, or burn, but the risk is worth it. Without our parents accepting the risk vs. benefit and understanding the extreme value in realistic learning, I guess we would never have learned to walk. The little falls along the way were well worth it, and eventually it made us capable of running, riding bikes, and a host of other activities that were much riskier but reasonably managed by the skills and lessons learned in the journey to walk.