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Exceeding NFPA 1403: How to level-up your live-fire training experience

Focus on defined instructor requirements, limited exposure time and EMS availability


“We owe it to the people who came before us and made the ultimate sacrifice to go above and beyond to ensure the safety of all live-fire training participants,” Pedroza writes.

Photo/Gil Pedroza

By Gilbert Pedroza

It has been said that NFPA standards create too many hurdles or roadblocks that prevent us from doing our job. Some common remarks: “Why are there so many rules?” and “Why can’t we just do things the way we’ve always done them?” and, of course, “It costs too much to do it the way the standard says.”

In many cases, NFPA standards should be the minimum standard. And in the case of live-fire training, all instructors must be extremely familiar with every aspect of the standard.

The standard for live-fire training, NFPA 1403, is one that most of us will encounter throughout our careers, whether student or instructor. An important point about 1403: Much of this standard has been “written in blood.” Too many brothers and sisters have lost their lives, and families have been greatly impacted due to tragic incidents during live-fire training.

So, is meeting the training requirements outlined in 1403 hard to do? I challenge anyone to the discussion and can enthusiastically say that NO, NFPA 1403 is not hard to meet. In fact, I challenge you to take it one step further and consider exceeding 1403. We owe it to the people who came before us and made the ultimate sacrifice to go above and beyond to ensure the safety of all live-fire training participants.

NFPA 1403 origins and updates

In 1982, firefighters from Boulder, Colorado, were participating in search and rescue drills in an acquired structure. The training officer ignited various materials to create a more realistic search environment. After a few evolutions, the rooms and materials inside became preheated. When the last crew entered the structure, conditions rapidly deteriorated, trapping the firefighters inside. Two firefighters lost their lives due, in part, to the lack of a formalized standard for live-fire training.

From this tragedy, NFPA 1403 was born and is now the foundation for building any live-fire training plan. However, since its implementation in 1986, firefighter fatalities during live-fire training has continued to occur. As a result, revisions have been drafted in attempts to reduce, if not eliminate, further firefighter injuries or fatalities during live-fire training exercises.

Currently in its sixth revision, NFPA 1403 covers terminology, position descriptions, minimum requirements, live fire in acquired structures, gas-fired structures and mobile props, Class A live-fire structures and props, and report and records requirements. Like most standards, it is written in a manner that allows fire departments to use the language to their advantage – an added layer to keep our members safer during live fire training. This is where we can actually exceed the minimum standards outlined in 1403.

How to exceed the standard

Although NFPA 1403 has many areas where the standard can be exceeded, let’s focus on four areas with the biggest potential impact for firefighter safety.

  1. Providing more defined instructor requirements and requiring live-fire training for all instructors.
  2. Limiting the exposure time of the fire control team (or any instructor in the IDLH environment) by minimizing their time inside the live-fire areas.
  3. Providing transport and advanced life support (ALS) services for all live-fire training.
  4. Requiring mayday and firefighter survival training for all participants prior to live-fire training.

I understand that not every department can support the additional money and personnel to support these ideas, but stressing the safety and health of our members should be an important consideration in logistical decisions.

  1. Increase instructor requirements: Job performance requirements for live-fire instructors are outlined in Chapter 4 of the standard. Section 4.7.1 reads: “The instructor shall meet…requirements for Fire Instructor I in NFPA 1041.” The Instructor-in-Charge shall meet the requirement for Fire Instructor II, according to section 4.7.2. That’s it. There’s a lot of responsibility being put on live-fire instructors – and a lot of liability. Ensuring your instructors have taken additional training in areas related to structural firefighting or specifically in live-fire training is a great start in fortifying your program. Live-fire instructor courses are available throughout the country. This type of class breaks down the standard and is important to understand where the liability can be the greatest.
  2. Reduce exposure time: Compared to the student, live-fire instructors are much more likely to be exposed to the effects of live-fire training due to the frequency of reps. As we are all aware, the immediate effects of heat, smoke and gases are one of the biggest concerns in the fire service due to the cancer-causing nature of these byproducts. The exposure isn’t limited to the instructors who are lighting the fire or those who are sitting in the fire room, stoking the fire, and it’s not limited to the instructors who are taking the fire attack team inside or leading a search team. Exposure also continues during the overhaul phase and even during the fire room reset.

    Section in the standard states: “Instructors shall be rotated through duty assignments. An Instructor shall not serve as the ignition officer for more than one evolution in a row.” For many fire departments, it is common practice to rotate instructors in an “inside-outside-inside-outside” pattern during live-fire training. An example of how to exceed 1403 in this context: Limiting your live-fire instructors to a set number of burns per month or year. Adding more instructors to your live-fire cadre can aid with the amount of time each instructor is exposed to live-fire training, minimizing their risk to health and safety.

  3. Add medical care: Section 4.11.1 in 1403 is the EMS standard. Here it specifies, “Basic life support (BLS) emergency medical services shall be available on-site to handle injuries.” Many things we do in fire service require inherent and known risks from each of us. Training carries those same risks, particularly live-fire training. As we know, dozens of our brothers and sisters die each year during training. Whether it’s a medical or trauma-related injury, they both need to be treated with urgency and rapid treatment and transport. The delay in requesting EMS and a transporting component delays the potential for the best possible outcome for our participants involved in the training.

    Although many departments may not have an internal EMS element to their organizations, most have a contract or agreement with an outside/private EMS authority. Exceed this section of the standard by providing transport and/or ALS during ALL live-fire training – it’s another example of doing what’s best for our members.

  4. Mayday and firefighter survival training: The minimum training requirements are listed in section 4.3.1 of 1403. This section references NFPA 1001: Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications focused on the requisite skill of calling for assistance should a firefighter need to be rescued. NFPA 1403 also addresses the requirement for an emergency communications plan as well as the prohibition of using live victims during live-fire training. These are all excellent but subtle ways of ensuring that students and instructors alike are familiar and capable of calling a mayday and ways to perform self-survival techniques.

    Providing the training or documentation for firefighter survival-specific training prior to the live-fire training is another excellent example of exceeding the standard. Have students and instructors demonstrate mayday communications via the radios and basic survival techniques in a non-IDLH atmosphere prior to the commencement of live-fire. Survival techniques include breathing techniques, coupling familiarization, or disorientation drills with obscured vision. Obviously, time constraints are usually a contributing factor when providing training. However, many of these examples can and should be done days or weeks prior to the live-fire training.

In sum

Live-fire training is arguably one of the most dangerous types of training we perform, with the greatest long-term effects. Exceeding NFPA 1403 creates an added layer of safety and support for all participants of live-fire training. We can do this by training our live-fire instructors to a gold standard, where shortcuts and ignorance are unacceptable. Further, while we commonly discuss the effects of IDLH exposures, live-fire training also has the added “baggage” of EDLH (Eventually Dangerous to Live and Health) exposure. Limiting the threat of exposures from live-fire training to our instructors, and even the students, provides for reduced health susceptibility for all participants in the training. Upholding the golden hour during an EMS-related incident gives us the best possible chance for a positive outcome. Lastly, knowing how to save ourselves on the fireground and in training is critical. The more we can reinforce real-life skills during training, the more our firefighters will know how to react should we ever get caught in a fireground or training emergency.

About the author

Gilbert Pedroza is a fire captain with the Glendale (California) Fire Department, where he has served the last 17 years of his 25 years in the fire service. Captain Pedroza is also a licensed paramedic and a hazmat specialist. He is a California state-certified instructor and has taught at local college fire academies throughout the state. Captain Pedroza also teaches for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors, where he teaches the Live Fire Instructor credentialing program as well as the Understanding and Fighting Basement Fires course.