How did we end up in a situation where suppressing propane flames without smoke is considered live fire training? Where the scenarios encountered during training look nothing like reality, and where you’re also not expected to act as you would in real life?

Are lazy instructors, the fear of cancer, environmental concerns, or a lack of understanding of learning to blame?

"You can't see anything"

It’s both tragic and telling that one of the most common things new firefighters remark upon at real fires is how they can’t see anything. Yes, you likely won’t see much inside a burning building.

That’s why reducing visibility during training for interior operations is crucial. Without visibility, even simple tasks become difficult and time-consuming to perform. Mediocre tasks become impossible.

Without poor visibility, I will inevitably learn incorrect behaviors, overestimate my capabilities, and overlook certain risks.

Thermal imaging cameras are vital

Since poor visibility is so important, we could simply block the visor on the mask during drills. Historically, this has been a cheap, simple, and very effective solution.

However, you won’t be able to see the thermal imager camera (TIC), which every firefighting team should have today. It’s a critical tool for both safety and efficiency on the scene. Training without the TIC will lead to incorrect behaviors

A better choice is to use clean theatrical smoke to obstruct visibility, allowing for the display on the TIC to remain visible for orientation and search exercises.

Firefighters training with TIC and limited visibility.

Is clean training really that great?

A clean training environment is, of course, a major advantage since washing and maintaining equipment takes time and money. And dirty equipment wears out faster, both from the dirt itself and the subsequent cleaning.

Personally, I find the filthy dirt from burning wood during training extremely unpleasant. A clean training facility that doesn’t generate a lot of dirt should be a good thing, right?

But, is there really no upside to getting dirty?

Dirt is a necessary evil

As much as it sucks, dealing with dirt is crucial for training. If you don’t have dirt messing up your visor and TIC during training, you won’t handle it well in real fires.

"In the thick of it, I'm there wiping my visor with a filthy glove, wondering why I can't see anything."

But in training, the glove’s always clean for wiping.

We need to get used to dealing with the mess from fires. You’ve got to train with dirty gloves so eventually, you start keeping a clean cloth for cleaning your visor and camera.

You need those dirty particles in the air so that you are forced to stay low and use your eyes and the TIC under the smoke to see anything.

But most firefighters will not like this. The drive to handle dirt will not come from a slideshow; it has to come from experiencing it.

No navigation without the mess

In a room filled with theatrical smoke, I might be able to use the TIC to spot walls and furniture to orient myself.

But you need those big, dirty, moving particles you get in real smoke. In the TIC, I can a lot of times see those big particles and how they move in a building. And I need that to find the fire fast, to assess risk, and so much more.

If that is missing in training, how do we expect the firefighters to be able to use it at real fires? We are setting them up for failure.

Cooling the cold smoke?

While theatrical smoke does block visibility, it lacks any heat to cool.

If an instructor tells you to cool it down anyway, you won’t get any real feedback on how your actions affect the room’s temperature and smoke movement.

And cooling already cold smoke creates massive confusion for the new firefighters. Using the TIC just feels pointless as it does not provide any value, while in real scenarios, it’s crucial for figuring out how your cooling efforts are doing.

How am I supposed to get better at evaluating my cooling if I can’t see the effects of it?

Random heat mess up learning

A common way to add heat to fire training is using space heaters in the training facility. Getting a feel for how your body reacts to getting hotter is important, but it’s not the main thing you should be training on.

During training, the firefighters are supposed to ignore that heat coming from several random places in the facility. It is highly confusing that some heat is good and should not be cooled during training, but cold theatrical smoke should be cooled.

It is the heat that should be one of the main factors of the training, to assess the risk and need for actions based on it. And we mess that up entirely.

Flames or smoke? You can't have both.

If we want heat without making a mess, we can burn wood or propane with plenty of air. That gets us flames we can spray water on and we can see the fire in the TIC.

However, the clean theatrical smoke can’t take heat and breaks down way before it reaches the flames.

"As an instructor I need to pick: Do I want flames or smoke? It is beyond ridiculous."

And suppressing flames without smoke hardly counts as practice. It’s nothing like the real deal, where you a lot of times can’t even see the flames or where your water is going.

The real risk is thinking you can handle more than you can when you are faced with reality.

Negligible global environmental impact

I primarily work with burning used wooden pallets. I find that materials like chipboard, fiberboard, and likewise are too expensive and rarely necessary to create the training environment I strive for.

Additionally, by burning wood materials that would otherwise be incinerated in the power plant, no extra carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. This makes it a renewable energy source compared to propane, which is a fossil fuel.

The overall environmental impact of burning wooden pallets is very negligible.

Local area impact

However, when wooden pallets are burned under oxygen-limited conditions, emissions of various environmentally hazardous substances in the local area increase. This is a consequence of the necessary poor combustion required to create the smoke we need for training.

But we only use clean wood and the amount is limited if we design smart systems.

Some impact now, less in total

We must weigh the benefit of the training versus the environmental consequence.

"How many wood pallets can I burn during training before it equals a burned-down factory?"

If we only save half a factory every decade we are probably making a good trade-off.

Solving the environmental impact involves working with environmental authorities to manage and justify necessary pollution.

But if local pollution still cannot be accepted, both the smoke and the water on the training ground can be cleaned so that nothing is released in the local area.

Lazy instructors

Instructors are often lazy and want to press a button to start the fire. But facilities can be built to be easy to use regardless if you burn wood, propane, or liquids.

Understanding how firefighters learn is very simple but very complex in practice because the training must resemble reality. Both in appearance but also in what the trainees should do. There are no shortcuts.

Pick your poison

Dirty training is unpleasant but necessary for good outcomes. Health-hazardous substances, on the other hand, are never desirable but currently an unavoidable part of the dirt.

"As far as I know, there is no way to create smoke that behaves like fire smoke, but is not also toxic."

So, we are faced with the choice of either creating a hazardous training environment or a training environment that does not prepare firefighters for reality. Neither of these options is really okay.

Accept risk or not?

We can solve the problem with harmful training smoke by not doing dirty training at all. But in that case, you also need to stop entering smoke-filled buildings at fires.

Without dirty training that at least to some degree resembles reality, it would be a crime to send firefighters inside.

Or we must accept some risk to our health during training, just as we accept other risks.

"Nobody is forced to become a firefighter, it is a choice."

Manage risk

Some will inevitably read my text text as a glorification of risk and a negligence to health concerns.

But I am probably more protective of my own health during fire training than most others. For me, it is all about risk management, not risk avoidance. And today we have fantastic knowledge, equipment, and procedures to manage that risk.

If firefighters are to enter burning buildings, they must train in an environment that at least partially resembles reality, and that means wood-based live fire training.

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