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Simulating a fire in a real building is different than in a training tower

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By John Morse

Training is very important for firefighters, and training in a real fire is a great way to learn the power of fire, the thickness of smoke, and the heat on your ears.  Training facilities today are outfitted with fancy simulators that regulate temperature, smoke, and can even create a flashover. Do these simulators do a good job of creating fire conditions?

It’s 1984 and we are ready to go to a controlled burn.  It’s not a training tower, it’s an abandoned three story wooden building and we are going to burn it down.  It is an ideal building since it has multiple areas that we can light and extinguish.  We are going to be able to run three of four good scenarios before we let it go and burn it into the foundation.

Since I am one of the new guys, I get to go in on each evolution, each time with a different crew.  Working with all of these guys taught me a lot as they each shared their tips and experience.  It also gave all of us the chance to learn what we can expect from each other.  Live fire training is one of the few instances we have to see how we work together when it really matters.

To get these fires going we used diesel fuel mixed with gasoline.  When that was ignited, it went fast and gave off some nice thick black smoke.  We poured that diesel / gas mixture onto upholstered furniture, and old mattresses.  It was logical to burn the things that would really be burning in a structure fire.

One of the best training tools was to sit in a room wearing full bunker gear and SCBA while the room was going through the different stages of burning.  A real building, with real smoke, and real contents burning gave us the best experience.

Today there are a lot of rules that make it very hard to conduct a controlled burn.  The EPA has rules, towns have rules, and the NFPA has rules about controlled burns.  There are also the neighbors that might not like the smoke in the area.

So to meet all these requirements instead of going to an abandoned building, we go to the training tower.  This tower has burn props that use natural gas and smoke just like they use in the high school play.  Smoke in fires today contains more toxins than ever.  It is never white like the smoke you will see in the training tower.

If you happen to get a little leak in your face piece you won’t even really notice the white smoke.  They claim that these simulators can create back draft and flashover conditions.  I have to say I never saw that work. Someone operating the controls can send some gas to the ceiling fire but that is nothing like what happens in a real flashover.

These props usually have sensors that need to be hit with water and cooled before the gas to the props shut off.  I have seen firefighters learn the wrong way to put out a fire because they were learning how to put out a prop.

I guess you can tell I am not a fan of burn props and fake smoke.  If that’s all you have to learn from, make sure you know it will be a little different at a real fire.  Hopefully your department will get some abandoned buildings and run some controlled burns.  If you get this chance make the most of it, do it right, and learn as much as you can.  Nothing can simulate a real fire.

Video credit:  YouTube user pdamfireman

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