Mitigating the risk of training LODDs
Training exercises carry the same risks as real fires and should be approached with even more caution
In theory, no one should ever be injured or killed during fire service training exercises. Training, by definition, should take place in a controlled environment, with specific goals, objectives and outcomes.
Of course, this is a fallacy. Training fires are still fires. Creating training scenarios that mimic actual fire response will necessitate also including some of the risk associated with emergency response.
According to data gathered by the NFPA, line of duty deaths resulting from training events made up an average of 8.5 percent of firefighter lives lost between the years 1977 and 2015. This is a significant number.
Even more disturbing is the fact that even as line of duty deaths decrease, the percentage of those related to training has tended to increase. According to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, more than 10 firefighters died every year between 2005 and 2013 due to training-related activities.
Fire training deaths lead to new standards
There are many reasons why training exercises sometimes go bad. Equipment can fail, circumstances can change suddenly and unexpectedly, people can make poor decisions. Sometimes there is a cascade effect, something author Charles Perrow discusses in his book Normal Accidents. It’s not so much that one person makes one really bad decision, but rather that many small decisions and events add up to a catastrophic system failure.
Training can also engender a certain amount of complacency among firefighters. It’s only training, it’s not real, and we’ve done it a hundred times before. The same amount of hypervigilance and adrenaline is not likely to be present compared to actual emergency response.
When I was a young firefighter, my department had a training fire that resulted in fatalities and injuries. It was a small exercise planned for another shift, supposedly a smoke drill, but it involved burning real fires in a real building that had not been sufficiently vetted to understand the potential risk.
This fire took the lives of two men: one a husband and father of young children, and the other barely past being a kid himself—at 21, he had only been on the job for four months. Two others were badly injured.
Our tragedy led directly to NFPA 1403, which specifically outlines standards for training fires. Our only consolation in losing those men was that other departments might learn from our mistakes and prevent such heartbreak in the future.
Training exercises are no time to cut corners
Fires are not the only danger when it comes to training. Firefighters have fallen from ladders; drowned; suffered from fatal injuries, heat stroke and cardiac arrest during training exercises. Investigations into each event tend to reveal a pattern of factors that lead to training line of duty death.
Sometimes there is a problem with preparedness. Firefighters are not physically prepared for the event, or lack the skills and knowledge to safely complete the tasks assigned. Sometimes leadership is lacking or communications fail. Sometimes the training evolution is poorly designed. Sometimes people get a little careless. And often there is a combination of factors that leads to the devastating outcome of a death during training.
Training for emergency response is not really different from actual emergency response. Despite the best planning and preparation, things can happen. It is inherently dangerous and unpredictable. It can never be made completely safe, but risk can be greatly reduced.
The most important thing that firefighters can do to prevent injury and death during training is to understand that bad things can happen, no matter how many times you’ve done the exercise before, no matter how confident you are in your skills, and no matter how controlled you perceive the environment to be.
Fire service training should be approached with at least the same level of attention to safety as any other emergency response, and most often more. It might be tempting to cut corners sometimes or to rush through. Most of the time, such actions will not have disastrous outcomes. But sometimes they will.
Those of us who have experienced this kind of tragedy don’t want anyone else to go through that needless pain.