Buying or Building; Liability with Live Fire Training Props & Facilities

In today’s world of litigation and blame, live fire training props and facilities are potentially a very hot topic. Some departments prohibit building props or facilities in a hope to limit their liability. Others encourage training staff to work with local talent to build custom props for specific purposes. Expense and customization are often drive decision making.

Recently a group of area mutual aid department cooperated to build a prop in my state. The specific need was for a prop to simulate the frequent rail car fires occurring with regularity in these neighboring districts. A professional engineer (PE) was engaged to assist with the design and certified welders and millwrights were contracted to build the prop. The prop serves the departments well, and to date the prop has performed flawlessly

But what if it hadn’t? If a significant injury or worse yet a training LODD occurred while using the prop, where would the liability land? Would the departments have been better protected had a commercially produced prop been purchased? Certainly, a judge would have had the final say with the stakes of live fire training being so high.

I am unaware of any test cases weighing buying vs. building props. I suspect the PE errors and omissions insurance carrier and the municipality would be deeply concerned with liability issues in this example. Municipal and district legal departments would be quick to posture to protect their agencies. Ultimately our jobs as emergency services training professionals is to provide safe, realistic, and relevant training. We must also be aware of liability issue when selecting the tools to teach responders.

NFPA 1403: Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions (2017) guides training officers on the execution of live fire training. Additionally, NFPA1402: Standard on Facilities for Fire Training and Associated Props (2019) discusses live fire training structures, fire behavior labs, and props.

The liability issue is not addressed by NFPA, nor should it be. It is my opinion, the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), must make the decision on their tolerance for liability when considering a purchased or manufactured live fire training structure, fire behavior lab, or prop.

A manufacturer may bear responsibility if a design or engineering flaw contributed to harm or death in a live fire training setting… if the facility, lab, or prop was properly installed, maintained, and used in compliance with manufacturers recommendations. They may not bear responsibility if the department varied from recommendations or modified the equipment or structure.

If a liability issue related to a live fire training prop or facility we’re to be litigated, I suspect the below references to NFPA would be cited:

NFPA 1402.3.3.5 Defines ‘Containerized Training Structure’ and states ‘if the containerized training structure is to support live fire training, then it is classified as a live fire training structure.’

NFPA 1402.7.1 states ‘live fire training structures SHALL meet the requirements of Chapters 6 and 7.’

NFPA 1402.6.1.1 states ‘the training structures and props SHALL meet the design and construction requirements of the AHJ and local building official including whether a building permit or professional engineer stamp are required.’

NFPA 1402.7.1.3 states ‘ Live fire training structures SHALL be designed by a licensed design professional’

NFPA 1402.7.2.2 states the ‘structural integrity SHALL be evaluated and documented by a licensed professional engineer’

NFPA 1402 Annex 3.3.2.24 states live fire training structures do NOT include “Fire behavior labs (also known as flashover containers) that are made from two offset shipping containers for the sole purpose of demonstrating fire behavior.’

With all of that said, the AHJ needs to weigh the costs, risks, and benefits then make an informed decision. There are benefits to engaging a company that specializes in the production of training props. Expect to pay for their expertise and experience. There are potential cost savings of producing structures, labs and props in house. Involving a licensed engineer in the design of a built structure, lab, or prop is paramount should you choose this direction.

Ensuring compliance with best practices and compliance with 1402 and 1403 is your best protection. This is true whether you build or buy your facility, lab, or prop. You and your department will be judged against these standards, whether the AHJ adopts them or not. They define best practices in the industry.

Using credentialed Live Fire Training Instructors and producing and following compliant burn plans is part of the equation. As the Industry leader in Live Fire Instructor Training, ISFSI provides the gold standard for live fire instructor credentialing. Informed instructors using appropriate props is the formula for success. Choose wisely when selecting your tools and be able to defend your decisions to build or buy the props to support high risk training.

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