The success or failure of any training program is often measured by the realistic nature of the training environment we create. In a depressed economy with fractured budgets and limited resources, realistic training becomes an even greater challenge for each and every one of us looking to enhance our skills. Fortunately, with a little imagination and creativity, anyone can create a series of realistic, cost-effective training props that challenge everyone from the newest recruit to the most senior firefighters and fire officers in our organization.
Where to Begin
The first step in developing any training program involving props is to conduct a needs assessment. In short, ask yourself (or your training committee/working group):
- What are the goals and objectives of the training program?
- What are we trying to simulate?
- What task(s) do we want the students/participants to perform?
- Can we make the props portable (to increase the number of personnel we can train), cost-effective and realistic?
- Most importantly, how can we do it safely?
Once you’ve answered these questions for you department, it’s time to build or acquire some training props. In this article, I’ll review some basic props related to forcible entry, roof operations, truck company tasks, SCBA confidence/endurance, fire behavior and rapid intervention team (RIT) deployment. These props can serve as a foundation of your department’s training program, but you can always build more complex props for increasingly advanced or specialized skills.
Much like ventilation props, forcible-entry props are some of the most common training props found on the drill ground. There are numerous types of commercially available forcible-entry props on the market. But if you’re looking to spice up your training and make it a little more realistic, consider the following:
- Using an acquired structure or facility in which you are limited to nondestructive training, construct a portable, self-standing forcible prop for each door in which entry will be made. The props can be constructed easily using old or damaged doors (man doors, roll-up doors, garage doors, etc.) from a local contractor or door company. Most companies will gladly give you their old doors if you’re willing to do a little dumpster-diving.
- Each door should represent a different forcible-entry challenge: drop bars, bay doors, inward/outward swinging doors, deadbolts, pad locks, etc.
- Set up a chain link fence simulator that can be cut to delay a crew’s access during a 360 size-up or walk around.
- For a drill involving a multi-company response to a commercial building (filled with synthetic smoke), set up a series of props around the structure, then time the crews as they perform their assigned tasks.
- Conduct an after-action review asking the following: Was the assigned task performed effectively using the correct technique? Was it completed it in a timely manner? Are there alternative techniques that should be considered?
Roof props are found on nearly every training or drill ground throughout the country. These props are usually constructed to replicate a pitched roof, and used to demonstrate roof ladder operations, roof cuts and saw skills. Although these props are effective in teaching the critical tasks of ventilation, there may be additional skills that can be taught with just a few modifications. As such, ask yourself the following questions:
- Can we add some realistic features—such as roof vents, different types of roof coverings (i.e., asphalt, tiles, wood or medal), a cut-away of the truss or rafter assembly—to help create a better understanding of the building construction and structural features (i.e., truss/rafter spacing, gusset plates) that we need to consider when performing vertical ventilation?
- Can we close in the roof assembly and plumb the prop with synthetic smoke to give it a more realistic feel while operating on the roof and/or punching through the sheetrock below?
- Can we use a small box fan (on the ground or mounted to the prop) to simulate a change of wind direction to help develop and/or improve decision-making skills when determining the correct location for the ventilation opening in accordance with windward/leeward sides?
- Can we add a gable end complete with vents to simulate alternative tactics for attic fires? Consider a replaceable panel that allows students to use a piercing nozzle or a small cut-away square where a chainsaw can be used for a triangular cut to insert a nozzle for a quick knock-down.
Some additional skills to consider teaching/sharing:
- Roof navigation: how to safely and effectively navigate a roof, using sounding tools, landmarks and structural components to identify geographical locations within the structure.
- Reading smoke: Require the students to define and describe the probable fire conditions based on the identified smoke conditions (smoke pressing from void spaces, emitting from spinner vents, etc.).
- Roof cuts: Practice standard ventilation cuts (order and location), inspection or kerf cuts, rectangular, square, louver, peak, trench, etc. (Perform each using K-12/circular saw, chainsaw, etc.)
Truck Company Props
Truck company operations are often the most exciting skills to teach firefighters simply because the drills involve breaking, chopping and/or cutting materials. The key is to teach firefighters to do this safely and effectively within the limitations of time based on the fire conditions below them.
Using a multi-station truck prop is one way to develop truck company skills. When constructing this type of prop, consider the following:
- Include a pitched roof simulator to allow your instructors to teach proper footing and balance, how to use hand tools to assist with footing and balance (i.e., pickhead axe, Halligan or pike pole) as well as roof ladder placement and positioning, etc.
- Using a utility pole or cut-away panel allows you to repeat critical ventilation skills multiple times while limiting the expense of additional supplies. A short section of a utility pole can be used to teach/demonstrate proper chopping techniques using an axe, maul or Pig tool while standing on a pitched roof. The same utility pole can be elevated to chest level (while standing on the ground) to teach saw-handling skills similar to the lumberjack challenge: Have the student start the saw on the ground, pick it up, cut a 1" section of the utility pole, activate the safety lock, kill the saw and place it back on the ground. This drill can be timed for an additional challenge—but while emphasizing the importance of safety throughout.
- Using old security bars, you can weld a short piece of pipe on the bars and insert a small section of rebar with an anchor bolt to simulate window bars or a security gate. Each window requires a series of four cuts at different levels and teaches the student how to effectively position, control and operate a circular saw.
- To spice up the training, conduct a timed truck company rotation to include the following: a three-minute chopping drill on the pitched roof; rotate to a cut station where you cut a 1" section of the utility pole, stop and store the saw on the ground in a set location; start a circular saw; and cut and remove the security bars, door locks, etc.
SCBA Confidence/Endurance Props
Although many consider SCBA confidence training a drill that’s often limited to recruit training, SCBA confidence and endurance skills should be reinforced annually for everyone, regardless of rank or experience level.
When developing an SCBA confidence prop (or program), consider building the props as modular units to allow the course to be changed or modified for each participant depending on their skill level. Building the props as modular units also allows you to transport the props to different sites or facilities, thus allowing crews to remain in their district for the scheduled training.
When building SCBA props, consider the following:
- Replicate the most challenging environments that you and your firefighters will encounter when using or operating with an SCBA: confined spaces, low-hanging wires, attics, reduced profile openings/areas (i.e., lean-to collapses), etc.
- Make the prop adjustable for participants with varying skill levels as well as their varying sizes/statures. By adding small sections of rebar or pipe in a low-profile tunnel or void space simulator, you can challenge the most skilled and/or smallest statured firefighters/officers.
- Spread the props out over a large area (fire station bay or open field) and add a series of drill stations into the mix for a timed SCBA endurance/air management drill. Have each firefighter start with a full cylinder and, when ready, have them navigate through each obstacle/drill until they exhaust their air supply. Make sure you document their beginning time, the number of laps/stations completed, when their low-air alarm activates, and when they stop. (See www.TES2training.com for an example of both an SCBA confidence program and an SCBA endurance program.) Provide a short rest period (15 minutes minimum) for vital signs, rehab and cylinder replacement, then repeat the rotation. Note: It’s strongly recommended that you monitor the participants’ vital signs before and after each rotation. Don’t forget to provide proper rest and rehab throughout.
RIT Deployment Props
One of the skills that’s often overlooked in training programs is to the effective deployment of a RIT during a fireground mayday event. In many cases, a department will dedicate countless hours of lecture time and hands-on training to teach rescue techniques, ladder bailouts and other self-survival techniques; however, very few have developed a formalized program or training method to evaluate and refine their RIT deployment operations.
One of the most cost-effective and highly successful props for testing and refining your department’s RIT-deployment skills and capabilities is constructed using nothing more than old pallets and wood scraps. Follow these steps for a useful drill:
- Using anywhere from 50 to 60 old pallets from the drill yard or a local pallet yard, construct a series of obstacles—two pallets on end nailed together to form 90-degree angles, multiple pallets nailed together to form walls, up and over ramps, dead end corridors, etc.
- Select a crew to serve as the initial search team, obstruct their visibility by placing a 12" piece of wax paper in their facepieces, provide them with the initial mayday information, and allow them to begin their search through the various obstacles towards the downed victim (noted by the activated PASS alarm).
- Later-responding crews can watch and learn as the crews deploy into the building in search of the downed member.
Some of the critical skills to be learned in a drill like this include RIT search operations, hoseline/search line deployment, air management, fireground communications, accountability, crew rotation times, rescue drags and carries, and patient-packaging techniques.
Training firefighters is a never-ending endeavor. The key to our success is to find new ways to establish the muscle memory and mental images of the correct techniques and procedures while creating the motivation and enthusiasm that makes them want to do it time and time again.
Sidebar 1: Scaled Fire Behavior Models
One of the most important lessons we can teach our firefighters (and fire officers) is the never-ending lessons of basic and advanced fire behavior. While some may limit their training to videos and settee fires in a burn building, the use of scaled models provides a safe and effective way to demonstrate some of the most critical aspects of fire behavior, including:
- Compartmentalization (and/or air track management) and how closing/opening doors and windows can control or spread a fire
- The effective or ineffectiveness of various forms of ventilation (vertical, horizontal, forced/mechanical)
- Fire/smoke spread
- The art of reading smoke (volume, velocity, density and color)
- Fire behavior and development (ventilation limited vs. a wind-driven or free-burning fire)