Live Burn Surprises: How We Can Recover

Live fire evolutions are an essential component of our training arsenal.  Live firefighting allows us to work with new firefighters even while we see fewer structure fires each year.  This training is also essential to adapt to the various changes in tactics with the modern fire environment.  

The Firefighter National Near Miss Reporting Systems has several reports dealing with unexpected events during live fire training.  The following report, Near Miss during live burn exercise, deals with a slight change in the plan made at the last minute, that had dramatic effects.

“Before entering the structure, they had time to decide to "take some heat" and to move into the burn room before knocking the fire down. This decision was made without the knowledge of the staff running the burn. The evolution was commenced as normal. As the crew entered the room, the rookie firefighter on the nozzle at the front of the crew felt that she was taking too much heat and wanted to exit. She had training that said, "Do not put too much water on the fire as it will cause steam burns" so she did not suppress the fire. She tried to back out, but the firefighters behind her were pushing into the room and did not allow her egress. Because she did not feel it was appropriate to suppress the fire and couldn’t back out normally, she abandoned the nozzle, pivoted on her foot and departed the burn room over the top of the rest of her crew. Because she didn’t stay low in the room for that instant, she was exposed to high heat during that time. She was not burned, but several items of her gear including her turnout jacket were damaged beyond repair. When this occurred, the instructor who was watching from a different doorway immediately extinguished the fire.”

Read the rest of the report at Near-Miss during live burn exercise.

When we conduct live fire training, the best way to minimize the risks is by using systems. Systems are a hallmark of all high-reliability organizations.  They provide a consistent way to operate, with safety margins baked in ahead of time.  Checklists provide a way to stay on track or to recover in the event of an emergency or unexpected event.  Think of a commercial pilot.  They know the steps by heart for preflight checks, or emergency procedures, and must demonstrate those skills in check rides periodically.  They still rely on the checklists to help eliminate errors and to make sure they correctly complete steps. Rather than cramping flexibility, checklists and systems can allow for changes, but keep things “in bounds” and help prevent errors.  Dynamic training like live fire requires many moving parts, and it can be challenging to catch all the possible mistakes without a system to help.

 Systems and checklists give us a way to ensure we stick to the plan.  Instructors develop the burn plan ahead of time and build in safety margins. This is all done before the stress of a busy training day.  In the heat of the moment, it can be difficult to realize when the evolution begins to drift away from the plan, and those safety margins start to get chipped away.  Compensating for different experience levels, numbers in the groups, changes with instructors, or other unexpected twists can make it easy to deviate from the plan.

By using systems and checklists, everyone involved will have a framework to follow, and it will be easier to get back on track when something changes.  NFPA 1403 has example checklists included, or you can develop your own.  Talk through what you expect to happen on a burn day and create checklist points to capture the important steps.  Examples include pre-burn checks for setup, or to determine if instructors and water supplies are ready.  There could also be checklists to use in an emergency, such as loss of a water supply or a missing participant.  These can make sure we take proper steps in a stressful, fast-paced situation.  By using these checklists, and consistent systems everyone knows what to expect and can recover from a bump in the road quickly and safely.

The Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System collects reports and stories from firefighters across North America and leverages those lessons learned to help all of us work safer.  Submit your story today at and help protect the next shift.

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