Author(s): Ken Willette. Published on September 1, 2017.

Training Safe

How we can eliminate injuries and deaths in firefighter training exercises

The training ground should be a safe place for firefighters, but in recent years that has increasingly not been the case. The margin for error can be small, and sometimes little oversights or a momentary lack of awareness can cause big problems. Consider a recent incident that occurred in Colorado, where a veteran career firefighter was severely injured while playing the role of the victim during a confined-space training exercise. After being secured to a harness, the firefighter was lowered into a five-foot-wide concrete shaft. At some point the harness shifted, causing the two chest straps to press against his throat, which restricted blood flow through his carotid artery and caused in him to lose consciousness. Although he received immediate emergency medical treatment and transport, the firefighter suffered damage to the parts of his inner ear and brain that control balance and eye movement, resulting in dizziness and impaired vison that may prevent him from ever returning to work.

Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. In 2015, nine firefighters died and more than 7,000 were injured during training sessions. In 2016, 10 firefighters died during training, a staggering 14 percent of the 69 total line-of-duty deaths reported by NFPA that year. This isn’t a structure fire or wildfire—the training ground is supposed to be a controlled environment where the only life to be saved is that of the trainee. So how does this happen?

When faced with such questions, I often find insight by looking back at my own fire service career. I recall times when an injury during training was truly an unavoidable accident, like when I lost my footing descending an aerial turntable and fell and broke my wrist. There were also several near misses that were definitely avoidable, like in 1975 when I wore a face respirator instead of a SCBA during a smoky fire exercise—I nearly blacked out and had a severe headache for hours. Experience is a great teacher, and I learned valuable lessons from each of these incidents. But those lessons came at the cost of my own health and safety. Ideally, we should be able to teach these lessons with zero deaths and injuries, and there are a couple of important things we can do to get closer to achieving that.

First, never underestimate the dangers posed by fire service training. Just because it’s a non-emergency activity doesn’t mean you can’t die or suffer a life-changing injury. In the confined space incident I described above, the firefighter had limited knowledge about the harness he wore, which was cited as a contributing factor in the event. Review each step of the training evolution and each piece of equipment to ensure there are no questions, and do not hesitate to call off the training or refocus it if participants lack the required knowledge and skills.

Second, learn from the experiences of others. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has investigated and published reports on many training deaths, and NFPA has also published a 10-year study on firefighter deaths during training. These reports find that many of the same factors that are killing and injuring firefighters on the fireground are also to blame for incidents on the training ground. These include heat stress and overexertion; sudden cardiac events; thermal burns; and sprains and strains. Consider these factors when planning any training and implement strategies to mitigate their impact. Lastly, refer to the NFPA standards on training, health, and safety. NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, and NFPA 1403, Live Fire Training Evolutions, are must reads.

Training is essential to increase the skills and knowledge of our firefighters and fire officers, but it should never come at the cost of their health, safety, or life.

KEN WILLETTE is fire service segment director at NFPA.