By Ray McCormack
I have never baled hay a day in my life, but I have burned with it. Most live burns use hay to function as the catalyst fuel source and fire development agent: to support combustion of wooden pallets, slower acceleration, as well as being used to ‘smudge’ areas. When damp, it creates a nice dark umber of a smoke (smudge). The other factor with using hay for live fire sets is that it is fairly predictable. The other factor about using hay for live fire sets is that it does not truly replicate the modern fire ground.
NFPA 1403 does not say that only hay must be used to provide the fire for the day: What it does state is that the burn materials used must have (known) burn characteristics. That is a fair policy and a sound approach to live fire fuels. If we wish to demonstrate to new firefighters what the modern fire environment is like, we should explore and investigate alternative Class A fuel packages.
The use of hay is not the real problem, hay is a great fuel. It can be easily placed, moved and spread about, it can be sprinkled and layered where needed, and it does a good job of creating and supporting fire. What it does not provide for students and instructors is the dense smoke that common home elements contain. Is that an issue, a problem?
Live fire training in many locations has been relegated to pit fires and flashover chambers. From the perspective of fire extinguishment, flashover chambers leave a lot to be desired: They represent a passive form of learning through observation of fire development. There are no turns or hallways to navigate with the hoseline; no coordinated extinguishment typical of a common house fire. Extinguishment of the chamber fire is typically handled by the training staff.
We need to examine realistically replicating modern fire conditions in a controlled live fire environment. We need stop vilifying the limited use of typical combustibles that are found in the modern house in live fire training. We need to validate the use of some alternative Class A combustibles that provide a more realistic, while safe fire environment, for firefighters. We should not run from using alternative burn materials, we should study them and find a workable mix that enhances live fire training.
When the use of live fire training is seen as too hazardous for new firefighters to experience, then we need to evaluate why that might be. If you just ban live fire training that may be the simple solution, but avoidance can cause a loss of firefighter awareness and skill development. If you want to know why some firefighters do not understand and operate properly at house fires, it is often due to a lack of basic fire knowledge gained through live fire training.
Model programs, that gradually takes students and instructors through the process of fire development, along with corresponding extinguishment techniques, helps to properly prepare our firefighters. If you think that live fire has no value, then you have probably never been exposed to a well-planned, comprehensive live burn program. If we think one cannot be developed, then we are selling ourselves short.
We have built live fire training classes on a hay and pallet foundation; we should now graduate to teaching current fire examples by tweaking the ‘mix.’ Give your firefighters and instructors the modern tools they need to stay tactically safe on the training ground and the fireground.
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