But We Train All The Time

Dave LeBlanc looks into whether or not it is our training that is getting us in trouble.


With each fire report that is published, whether by NIOSH or an individual department, an alarming trend is coming to light. This position may be a bit controversial, but it seems as though the fire service is doing a bad job at preparing its personnel to operate in a hostile environment. Across the country firefighters are running into trouble inside burning buildings and then fail to act in a manner consistent with their survival.

But is it their fault? Or is it a result of their training?

Perhaps we need to change our training direction a bit. Certainly many of the outside instructors offer great training that focuses on topics or skills necessary to be a good firefighter. Many departments put together great in house training programs as well. But there also exists a “disconnect” as Bill Carey puts it, between how we train and what we do on the street. This disconnect seems to be the root cause of many of the injuries and deaths we read about.

With a decrease in fire duty there is a need to provide realistic training for our firefighters. While it is impossible to reproduce actual fire conditions, in terms of heat and to some degree smoke, if we allow our firefighters to perform as if there is a difference between training fires and the real thing, we will get the learned behavior every time. “Play like your practice”, we hear it time and time again. The problem is, we are doing just that.

A Maryland firefighter mistook this open, interior door as a closed exterior door after he left the hoseline during a 2009 house fire. After passing through the doorway, he removed his facepiece and realized his mistake. He was later recovered, unconscious, by another firefighter searching for an activated PASS device.

When firefighters are standing up in high heat, zero visibility environments, they are falling back on their training. When firefighters remove protecting clothing and SCBA while in these same conditions, they are panicking because their training has let them down. These actions lead to injuries and death, and are avoidable.

How often have been inside a concrete burn building and seen firefighters walking around?

How often, during training, does a firefighter experience an equipment malfunction and just stand up and walk out?

These learned behaviors will repeat themselves in the real world. The Fire Service Warrior, Chris Brennan and Backstep’s own Bill Carey have both discussed how our minds work and what our reactions are based on. While we can’t burn ourselves in training to see how we will react when exposed to extreme heat, we CAN train ourselves in recognition of these conditions and the safe way to evacuate. This will at least give our minds and bodies something to fall back on when thing go wrong.

Many years ago, law enforcement used to train Officers to raise their hand if they experienced a jam while on the range. This allowed the range master to come and assist the officer in clearing the jam. This was the “safe” way to do things. Then it happened, while in a gun fight an Officer experienced a jam. The officer was seen to stand up from behind cover and raise his hand to signify a jam. Fortunately it all ended well and the officer was uninjured, but it also sparked more realistic range training for law enforcement. Officers now “tap and rack” their weapons, rather than raising their hand over their heads.

You can easily see the comparison between the law enforcement example and our own burn building training. Every year or six months your department goes to the same concrete burn building, you crawl down the same narrow hallway, your truck crew vents the same metal shutters, you reach the “burn room” and quickly extinguish 1 or 2 bales of straw. While the repetition and practice is good, if the habits we create don’t hold up in the real world, then we might as well stay in the station.

This is the same reason the military goes to such great lengths to re-create “villages” for soldiers to train in. Realistic training produces better trained soldiers and better trained soldiers have a better foundation to work from when things go bad.

A fire instructor once said, “it is difficult to crawl with your hands covering your ears.” This statement was made during a flashover training class, and his point was that we are issued hoods for a reason. To protect the area below the helmet and above you coat collar. Leaving your hood bunched up around your neck isn’t going to help you when things get bad, and the pain you encounter may prevent you from thinking clearly enough to escape.

Traditions Training posted a great article a couple of years ago which is worth revisiting. “What is a combat ready engine company?” discusses exactly what it takes to be prepared as a firefighter. Nick Martin talks about be fully dressed when we arrive, because that is what the public expects. Also because that is how we need to be if we want to be successful in our goal of putting out the fire and coming home. In other words, “Expect Fire”. Every time you go out. Get off the truck like you are ready to work. Learn the techniques necessary to mask up and hood up quickly, with your gloves on. The seconds you save could mean a life. Another benefit of getting off the truck ready to go to work is that when you are rushed, for example Dad screaming his baby is trapped, there is a better chance of you going to work fully dressed. Instead of getting inside and realizing your hood is around your neck or your gloves are in your pocket.

The catch phrase on Backstep Firefighter is “Expect Fire”. Based on the idea that every time you turn out you should expect the run to be a fire, that way aren’t surprised and don’t spend your first few minutes trying to “unpucker”. If you are one of those that comes to work and spend your first 20 minutes worrying about coffee and the sports page, you might be better off not “expecting fire”, or with a career change. But if you are serious about this job, then train hard every day and make that training realistic. Practice your emergency procedures, practice crawling even when you can stand, practice bailing out, practice knowing your alternate ways out, practice, practice, practice………

Photos courtesy Bruce Secrist, Cliff Shockley/FITHP.net; Mark Brady/PGFEMS PIO, with permission.



All comments must include your name or the name of your department. Either one, it makes no difference. If you don’t, well we can do nothing for you.





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4 Comments

  • Thanks for the shout out brother and the idea for my 100th Blog post.

  • Bill Carey says:

    From Facebook, Assistant Chief Bryan Records, Salisbury (MD) Fire Department

    “Too many train all the time in concrete buildings. More time should be spent in donated structures and getting some real life experience. Plaster and lath, balloon frame and rough cut oak display a whole different ball game than concrete. Common sense is a training session every new recruit should have to take.”

    Bill Carey

  • Eddie C says:

    Too often we get complacent in our training and wonder why we see breakdowns on the fire ground. To take this one step further, we need to train with realistic staffing levels. I know I will never have the luxury of a 4 person engine or truck company. I then need to be able to effectively, safely, and efficiently accomplish my assigned tasks with less. Perfect; hell no! Realistic; unfortunately yes.

  • Smitty says:

    Unfortunately, common sense is not very common! Training is very important, yet being physically prepared to complete our tasks on the fire ground is another area that should be considered training. If you do not follow The Fire Service Warrior written by Chris Brennan, you need to! Chris also posts weekly videos on YouTube that should be part of everyone’s weekly if not daily dose of internet training.

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