Fire fighters prepare for the worstCloquet Area Fire District fire fighters were joined by fire fighters from Duluth, Superior, Virginia and Hibbing for a four-day training course that aimed to teach them how to stay alive when things go wrong. They also learned and became certified to teach other the same survival course, so they can go back to their home fire department and share what they learned.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
Here’s a lesson plan certain to catch a fire fighter’s attention — base each lesson on a line-of-duty fire fighter death.
“Having the line-of-duty deaths makes it hit home more,” said Chad Vermeersch, one of seven Cloquet Area Fire District fire fighters to attend an International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Fire Ground Survival Training Program in Scanlon last week. “You definitely think about how a similar situation could affect us.”
The CAFD trainees were joined by fire fighters from four other area fire stations — two each from Duluth, Superior and Virginia, plus 10 from Hibbing — for a four-day training course that aimed to teach them how to stay alive when things go wrong. They also learned and became certified to teach other the same survival course, so they can go back to their home fire department (or one of the other four departments at last week’s training) and share what they learned.
A paragraph from the IAFF website explains how this training program is different:
“The guiding fire service philosophy for decades has been training for success — we teach how to put the fire out or mitigate other hazards and hope everyone goes home. What we have failed to consistently do is drill for when failure does occur; without such training fire fighters do not have the practiced skills to rely on IF and WHEN they get into trouble.”
The Fire Ground Survival training program applies the lessons learned from fire fighter fatality investigations conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. In essence, it’s based on real-life scenarios and expert opinions and consensus on what that particular fire fighter should have done differently.
One example given last week was a 36-year-old fire department captain who died because he got entangled in wires when a suspended ceiling collapsed. The 19 or 20 fire fighter trainees in Scanlon learned what to do when that happens, along with myriad other possibly life-ending scenarios.
The course is taught by fire department leaders from around the country. Last week’s class boasted instructors from California — the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County — Phoenix, Ariz.; Austin, Texas; and Prince George’s County, Md.
“We teach them how to save themselves, and also how to recognize they’re in a bad situation,” explained instructor Chris Pardi, who came from the Phoenix fire department. “Everything we teach them comes from someone dying. The IAFF created this survival course to learn lessons from something that went wrong so it never happens again. Sometimes you find yourself in a bad situation. This gives them something to fall back on, training so they can figure a way to get out.”
“If you read through the line-of-duty deaths, you can probably think of a guy here who has been in a similar situation, only not as bad,” Vermeersch said.
In the words of the IAFF:
“There is no other call more challenging to fire ground operations than a MAYDAY call — the unthinkable moment when a fire fighter’s personal safety is in imminent danger. Fire fighter fatality data compiled by the United States Fire Administration have shown that fire fighters “becoming trapped and disoriented represent the largest portion of structural fire ground fatalities.” The incidents in which fire fighters have lost their lives, or lived to tell about it, have a consistent theme — inadequate situational awareness put them at risk.”
Vermeersch explained that the four-day survival training included a little more than one full day of classroom training, two days of hands-on training and a final day when each fire fighter had to successfully complete a confidence course, (he called it an “obstacle course for fire fighters”).
The course included a wall breach with reduced profile — “You have to break through sheet rock and fit between the studs,” explained Vermeersch — which meant the fire fighter had to utilize certain techniques to fit through the narrow space between the studs wearing an airpack and full gear. After the wall breach, fire fighters had to make their way safely across a floor with holes in it and only studs in some places. Then they had to find a hose line and determine which way was out, going through more reduced profiles (tight spaces in laymen terms) on the way out. Once they were out of the building, they had to get through both entanglements and tight spaces while staying on the hose line. At one point, the trainees had to squeeze through a space basically the height of a coffin wearing full gear and unable to see.
Duluth fire fighter Dan Smith said the training was “amazing.”
“Really good stuff,” Smith said. “Very comprehensive training that every firefighter should have.
The only thing the assorted students didn’t do in the test that they learned was “head first ladder bails, according to Vermeersch.
“If things are really bad and you can’t get high enough to go out feet first, they taught us to go head first,” he said, explaining that the temperature in a burning room can be 1200 degrees F. at the head level but closer to 500 degrees lower down, a survivable temperature with the specialized gear fire fighters wear.
The fire fighters also had to do “teach backs” on their final day, so the instructors could evaluate their teaching skills. The instructors stressed that the instructors must “walk the talk” at all times, and not dilute the training program in any way.
The IAFF website explains why the program must not be compromised:
“The purpose of the Fire Ground Survival program is to ensure that training for Mayday prevention and Mayday operations are consistent between all fire fighters, company officers and chief officers. Fire fighters must be trained to perform potentially life-saving actions if they become lost, disoriented, injured, low on air or trapped. These training exercises must be consistent throughout the fire service.”
While CAFD has been growing its training and education programs — and he’s been instructing some of those courses — Vermeersch said the IAFF training was unlike anything he’d been through before.
“I’ve taught survival training for quite a few years, and this course was a lot more in-depth and thorough than anything I’ve seen before,” Vermeersch said.
Both Vermeersch and CAFD Chief Kevin Schroeder get the credit for working over the past two years to make it possible for CAFD fire fighters and the other area fire fighters to take the course here. Getting a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant to pay the $45,000 cost of the course and the props was key.
It’s a lot of money, but that included the costs of flying instructors in for a week of training, plus about $15,000 worth of props and training equipment that CAFD will keep and use for future training.
“Twenty different agencies spent years developing this course,” Vermeersch said. “Of course, it would have been cheaper to just bring them in to teach our department, but we chose to learn to be instructors.”
In the final hour of the class, the instructors asked the trainees what stood out to them.
The answers varied.
“Entanglements,” said one.
Another talked about learning even more about the air packs that fire fighters depend on to breathe, and realizing that he really didn’t know as much as he thought he did about this critical tool.
“A lot of us haven’t personally experienced a fire fighter fatality,” CAFD’s Jeremy Hutchinson said, thanking the instructors on the last day of class. “It must be difficult to talk about, but it really helps.”
Lead instructor Andrew Ruiz (an LA firefighter) said it helps the instructors too.
“It’s a healing process for us and it allows us to get the message out so we can make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Ruiz said.
Although the course is based on fire fighter deaths, Ruiz said the goal is optimistic.
“We’re changing the culture,” he said. “Those 100 fire fighters that die each year — that number needs to drop. There’s a lot of leaders in here. You know when you go back to your departments, you need to give back.”
That’s the plan.
“I really think this will make a difference,” said Hibbing’s Jim Sallis.