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We explore the subject of safety in the workplace in 2021.


The future of realistic firefighter training – balancing safety and protecting the environment

Brian HeslerBy Brian Hesler6 May 2021

This article discusses how ‘realism’ has become one of the most important elements of modern firefighter training, and how the industry is balancing this against firefighter safety and protecting the environment.

While training has always been a critical part of a firefighter’s job, the need to provide more effective realistic training for our firefighters has become increasingly important in recent years. First and foremost is the welcome reduction in fires over recent decades. While in the 1970s and ‘80s it would not be unusual for many urban fire stations to attend up to 5,000 incidents every year, the improved awareness, education and fire safety measures have thankfully reduced fire incidents by close to 80%.

This means, however, that firefighters are not receiving the frontline experience that they did previously which supports maintaining competence and safe working. Training that enables firefighters to experience realistic incident scenarios is therefore essential to ensure firefighters are competent and confident in how they approach the wide variety of incidents they face.

The fact that there is now a greater variety of combustible materials used in furniture and interiors has also increased the need for focused training to demonstrate how these materials will react in different scenarios – it is no longer about training a firefighter to react in a situation, but rather to understand the science of fire and be able to predict what is most likely to happen in varying ambient conditions.

Global warming and the increasing prevalence of wildfires and flooding is also putting pressure on our Emergency Services to widen their breadth of critical response knowledge. This rarely featured in firefighting training two or three decades ago, but fire services in the UK are now working globally with sector experts and are doing an outstanding job of sharing best practice and devising robust measures to combat such devastating and more frequently occurring events. Covid-19 has further heightened the importance of realistic training as some non-operational firefighters have had to refresh their skills in a short period and return to the front line to replace colleagues who are shielding, in isolation or simply supporting and protecting family members.

In essence, experience counts in making every move a firefighter makes automatic, with instant reactions being what saves lives. In the absence of real-life incidents, realistic training is what we need to provide that experience.

What we’re trying to achieve

We have come a very long way from the days when fire training centred simply around exposure to hot temperatures – often referred to as ‘burn to learn’. It is now about much more than protecting a firefighter from becoming burnt, but rather teaching the science and behaviour of a fire and the effects of its contaminants, not only to support fire and rescue operations, but also to protect the firefighter’s ongoing health. All of this must be undertaken in a controlled and safe environment.

Dräger’s training is typically split into three areas:

  • Training systems – these encompass mobile or fixed training facilities that enable state-of-the-art training so firefighters can experience real fires or extrication scenarios in a safe environment including compartment fire behaviour training (CFBT). At Dräger they include a vast portfolio of potential fire and rescue environments, including petrochemical plants, hospitals, schools, high-rise buildings, vehicles, aircraft, ships and underground stations;
  • Technical training – providing comprehensive know-how on the maintenance and repair of equipment – from mechanical and electronic components through to cleaning and disinfection;
  • Fitness training – providing equipment to help ensure that firefighters are prepared for the physical challenges that come with the job and can be tested and monitored to improve their fitness and safety.

Realistic training also ensures firefighters are practised in using breathing apparatus and safety equipment within confined and uncomfortable spaces. And understand the loss of sensory perception as a result of their very effective PPE, its limitations and both the physiological and psychological impact of firefighting.

Training also needs to encompass a wide range of free-standing and mobile objects from vehicles, aircraft and vessels to industrial buildings and the cooling and extinguishing of containers with hazardous materials.

Protecting the environment

Training that provides the necessary realistic fire environment produces significant smoke and related emissions from its carbonaceous fires. These can obviously have an adverse effect on the environment and present a nuisance element to neighbouring properties. Large quantities of smoke and emissions provide an unfit and unacceptable environment for local businesses and residents, with other practical training scenarios such as those using firefighting foam creating the potential to pollute local waterways if proper mitigating measures are not adopted. Another consideration is the fuel required to power training facilities, as well as challenges in how we dispose of or, where possible, re-use materials and structures used in incident training.

It is our role as manufacturers of medical and safety technology to innovate solutions that not only provide the necessary realistic training, but also limit the impact they have on our environment.

Technology balancing realism with the environment

Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) simulation training became popular approximately 20 years ago, and has considerable benefits in providing firefighters with controlled, clean fire training. It does not produce the same hazardous and nuisance emissions as a carbonaceous fire and therefore reduces negative impacts on the environment. However, alone it is not a sufficient substitute for real-incident scenarios, hence we think the answer is to provide a blend of carbonaceous and LPG training.

Filtration and smoke-screening systems are two technologies helping to make carbonaceous fire training kinder to our atmosphere. As an industry we are heavily regulated to ensure that training facilities meet industry and local authority environmental standards, determining how much fuel can be used and limiting maximum temperatures. The industry is using innovative technology, structures and materials to manufacture smoke and temperature-controlled facilities that not only protect the environment, but also have the added benefit of enabling repeatable and safe training. This means that firefighters can physically repeat training elements where further clarity or practise is needed, rather than the facility being unusable for significant periods following an exercise as most structures are required to ‘cool down’ to protect its integrity.

RTC (road traffic collision) training is a good example of where technology is helping us to balance realistic training with protecting the environment. Often, the only way that fire services can provide training on vehicles (including Heavy Goods Vehicles) is to purchase them from scrap or receive them as donations. An example of an alternative to this practice is utilising re-usable facilities to demonstrate exactly how vehicles such as HGVs react in a collision and fire incident. This includes realistic detail such as the weight of panels and doors, dangers surrounding air bag and modern seat belt systems, intake air ducts and dashboards, as well simulating entrapment with real-life casualty positioning. The end result is the replication of smoke and fire, including the sounds of engine noise and trapped casualties. These enable the full range of victim recovery and hazardous material training which again can be repeated and also conducted simultaneously. Dräger’s TRT 7000 HGV/Hazmat model is one such example and can be ready for the next training session within minutes of the previous training being completed.

Using such facilities means that fire services do not need to procure then subsequently dispose of significant quantities of scrap vehicles for training events, and no longer have to make them safe by draining fluids and deactivating charged risks. It also means that the environment is better protected from the potential loss of fluids which in many cases will inevitably enter our watercourses.

Driving best practice

Modern insulated, steel structures are leading the way in ensuring that training facilities use less fuel, control heat more effectively and retain structural integrity, creating a safer environment over a greater number of years.

All Dräger’s training facilities provide fully-integrated environments that report on room conditions in real time using temperature sensors, pressure sensors, thermal imaging, optical cameras and firefighter monitoring systems. Emergency controls and smoke vents, as well as tactical smoke ventilation mean that those monitoring a training environment can reduce the temperature and smoke levels. Legacy reporting on these environments can also be used for informing investigations into safety events, general auditing and due diligence.

In addition to innovating solutions, we also see it as our responsibility to support fire services in getting the most out of their training facilities by providing national backup and support. Facilities can also be leased, as well as purchased in order to support budgetary limitations.

Overall, we think that a blend of carbonaceous and LPG training is required to provide safe, realistic and repeatable training which is bespoke to a vast range of varied environments and simulated structures. Providing this level of training and protecting the environment is an ongoing challenge, but one where technology is helping to provide the solutions.