4 steps to safe, realistic live-fire training

It is up to the training officers to make live-fire training both safe and effective; here's how to do it


No firefighter should die during a training exercise. Period.

Several years ago, one of my fire service training colleagues talked to a group of entry-level firefighter trainees following a day of live-fire training exercises.

"You all worked hard today and you saw and fought a lot of fire," my colleague said. "But never forget that here on the training grounds the animals are in cages. In the real world there are no cages."

I thought that was a great analogy and it's one that I use to this day during training exercises. It's equally important that when we design training scenarios we keep in mind that as good "head zookeepers" it's our job to ensure that the zookeeper trainees are safe, the animal cages are secure and that we never needlessly throw our students to the lions.

Everyone should know about NFPA 1403 Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions and its impact on live-fire training scenarios. NFPA 1403 contains very specific guidelines for conducting live-fire training in acquired structures (Chapter 5), but that's not the sole purpose of 1403.

Chapters 6-8 also include live fire training using designed burn buildings (both gas-fired and non-gas fired), simulators like flashover simulators using Conex boxes and exterior props for car fires or LP gas tanks.

Yet the most important feature of NFPA 1403 is Chapter 4 with the ubiquitous title of "General." Chapter 4 starts off with: "All live fire training evolutions shall comply with this chapter and the appropriate chapter for the type of training being performed." The rest of Chapter 4 addresses requirements for:

  • Pemits.
  • Student prerequisites.
  • Safety officer duties.
  • Duties of the instructor in charge and all instructors.
  • Training instructors on how to use specialty props.
  • Duties of the fire control team.
  • Personal protective equipment requirements.
  • Communications.
  • Emergency medical services.
  • Water supply.
  • Fuel materials.
  • Parking and staging.
  • Visitors and spectators.
  • Pre-burn plan and briefing.

Thorough briefing
Have you seen this before? Firefighters and officers are thrust into the training scenario given to them with the expectation that they handle the situation as if it were an emergency situation.

No briefing, no consideration for the level of knowledge, skills or experience of the students and no guidance and direction. Just handle it.

How does that unusually turn out? Not so good in my experiences.

Every training scenario should be viewed as an opportunity for everyone to engage in learning, practice and growth — in other words, success.

You can have a higher degree of success with your next live-fire training exercise by following these four steps. And following these steps also serves to further develop the incident command structure and tactical leadership skills of your instructors.

1. Create an incident briefing using ICS Form 201.
The incident briefing should be used to ensure that all students and instructors understand the why, what, where, when and how for the training exercise. Together with the site safety map, the incident briefing should ensure that everyone understands where training activities will take place and where critical logistical facilities such as rehab and medical treatment or SCBA cylinder refills are located.

2. Create an incident action plan using ICS Form 202.
The incident action plan should be used to brief all students and instructors on what will the training goals and objectives be, who will be involved in the training and where will the training take place.

NFPA 1403 requires that all participants in a live-fire training exercise must undergo a walk-through of the structural burn building or an acquired structure to become familiar with the building's layout, entry and exit points, and any hazards present prior to commencement of the training.

3. Create an organization assignment list using ICS Form 203.
This ensures that everyone on the training ground knows what their assignment is and who they are working for and training with.

4. Create a safety plan with a site safety map of the training site.
The safety plan should also include a health and safety message for all students and instructors.

Other NFPA standards for training
NFPA 1403 is not the only standard that's applicable to fire service training. The following list of the NFPA standards address the training component for a variety of tactical operations and service delivery that fire departments and their personnel engage in.

  • NFPA 1404 Standard for Fire Service Respiratory Protection Training.
  • NFPA 1407 Standard for Fire Service Rapid Intervention Crews.
  • NFPA 1408 Standard on Thermal Imaging Training.
  • NFPA 1410 Standard on Training for Initial Emergency Scene Operations.
  • NFPA 1451 Standard for a Fire Service Vehicle Operations Training Program.
  • NFPA 1584 Standard on the Rehabilitation Process for Members During Emergency Operations and Training Exercises.
  • NFPA 1670 Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents.

So before you start developing your next fire training scenario, live fire or otherwise, you'll find it beneficial to learn more about what it takes to keep the "zookeepers in training" safe and the "animals" in their cages. In doing so, you'll be taking a huge leap forward in having a better training exercise and keeping everyone involved safer.

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