To be effective, firefighters need to train under conditions that approximate their work environment, which means they need live fire training. Police departments do not hand new recruits a bullet-resistant vest and a firearm and say, “Point this end at the bad guy,” and then send the police officer out on patrol. Police recruits undergo many hours of classroom instruction, range time and scenario-based training to become proficient in police techniques, and the knowledge and use of deadly force. However, the fire service sometimes takes the approach of “here are your turnouts; point this end of the nozzle at the fire” and then puts the firefighter on the fire engine to fight fire.
In the period between 1977 and 2009, the number of structure fires decreased by 53 percent. During this same period, the number of firefighter deaths due to traumatic injuries sustained fighting the fire increased from 1.8 deaths per 100,000 fires to 3.0 deaths per 100,000 fires. According to the National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting system, for the period between January 2005 and December 2010, there were 89 live fire training near-miss incidents (where some type of unsafe practice occurred) and 28 of those incidents (31 percent) were in acquired structures compared with 17 incidents (16 percent) that occurred in dedicated burn buildings.
The number of fires is decreasing, but firefighter fatalities are increasing, so how do firefighters gain the knowledge and experience needed to be good, safe firefighters? The answer is controlled situation live fire training. Firefighters need to train in combat conditions, facing real fires, either of Class A materials or with environmentally friendly propane simulators. Firefighters need to feel the heat and experience disorientation and the loss of sight in hot, dark, smoke-filled environments. Live fire training provides real-time, real-world experiences that the classroom environment cannot replicate. Live fire training carries as much risk as any structure fire, but careful planning can mitigate some of the risk.
Some departments are fortunate to have a purpose-built structure (burn building) to use in live fire training, but many departments do not. The Tennessee Fire and Codes Enforcement Academy has an excellent live fire training facility, but many departments, especially volunteer departments, do not have the time required to travel to the academy or the money for meals and lodging, even though the cost of training at the academy is very reasonable. Many volunteers cannot take the time off from work required to participate in academy classes. To provide live fire training, one option for these departments is the use of acquired structures for training.