Ten San Francisco fire fighters narrowly escaped serious injury this week when a fire ball of hot gases poured out of a door they opened. This close call happened when fire fighters responded to a four-alarm fire earlier this week. This incident underscores the need for fire fighters to make their personal safety a priority during emergency incidents.

Training is a critical step in preventing fireground injuries and line-of-duty deaths, but even more important is the way you train. The guiding fire service philosophy for decades has been training for success — we teach how to put the fire out or mitigate other hazards and hope everyone goes home. What we have failed to consistently do is drill for when failure does occur; without such training fire fighters do not have the practiced skills to rely on IF and WHEN they get into trouble.

Some will argue that the injury and LODD statistics during training indicate that the way we train is already “too realistic”. A closer look at the statistics reveals that traumatic deaths related to “realistic” training is NOT the leading cause of injuries and deaths during training. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) report U.S. Firefighter Deaths Related to Training, 2001 – 2010 published in January 2012, Of the 108 training-related deaths in the 10-year period, 56 were due to sudden cardiac death.

The category where the most deaths were reported (39 deaths) involved apparatus and equipment drills. This category includes training on specific apparatus and equipment, ladder climbing, pump and drafting operations, SCBA and smoke drills, driver/pilot training and training in extrication. The 39 fatalities that occurred during apparatus and equipment drills included 25 caused by overexertion, stress or underlying medical issues. These numbers demonstrate that it’s not necessarily the realism of the training that leads to injuries or deaths on the fireground.

So what is the best way to train? Research shows that when people are performing tasks in stressful situations, the release of the stress hormone (cortisol) interferes with their ability to process information and their ability to make decisions. The brain then reverts to stored memory. This is where training for failure comes into play. If you have only trained for success in the past then you probably lack the stored memory to perform the critical tasks necessary to ensure your survival.

Fire fighters don’t plan to be lost, disoriented, injured or trapped during a structure fire or emergency incident. But fires are unpredictable, volatile and ruthless – and they will not go according to your plans. What a fire fighter knows about a fire before entering a blazing building may radically change within minutes once inside the structure. Smoke, low visibility, lack of oxygen, structural instability and an unpredictable fire ground can cause even the most seasoned fire fighter to be overwhelmed in an instant. It’s not a matter of IF the MAYDAY happens, it’s WHEN!

What can you do? The IAFF Fire Ground Survival (FGS) Program is the most comprehensive survival skills and MAYDAY prevention program currently available within the fire service. Incorporating federal regulations, proven incident management best practices and survival techniques from leaders in the field, and real case studies from experienced fire fighters, the FGS program aims to educate all fire fighters to be prepared if the unfortunate happens.

The training begins with the IAFF FGS Online Awareness Course which is available online and free to all members. This comprehensive curriculum was developed using near misses, close calls, and fire fighter fatalities to address the critical elements of fire ground survival. Information from NIST, NIOSH, IAFF, IAFC, UL, USFA, NFPA and the military was used to develop the five part curriculum consisting of: 1.) Mayday Prevention, 2.) Being Ready for the Mayday, 3.) Self-Survival Procedures, 4.) Self-Survival Skills, and 5.) Fire Fighter Expectations of Command During a Mayday. More than 14,000 IAFF members have already completed this course.

Completing the IAFF FGS Online Awareness Course makes you eligible to attend the FGS Train-the-Trainer Course. This course is hosted by a fire department utilizing IAFF FGS Master Instructors and is designed to certify FGS Instructors by the IAFF from within IAFF-affiliated fire departments from the ranks of fire fighters, company officers and chief officers. These IAFF-Certified FGS Instructors will have the ability to train their fire department’s recruits and incumbents who have completed the FGS Online Awareness Course.

A fire department may be a host site for up to 30 candidates at a fixed fee of $45,000.  As part of this fee, the IAFF will provide durable, fabricated props for the Upper Floor Egress, Disentanglement, and Reduced/Low Profile Wall Breach. Durable signage for all props and training stations will also be provided. These props and signage will remain the property of the host site. The IAFF FGS Train-the-Trainer Course has been conducted in more than a dozen IAFF affiliated departments this year with additional classes scheduled through November 2012.

For more information on bringing this critical training to your department, contact the Division of Occupational Health, Safety and Medicine at 202-824-9304. Remember, amateurs train until they get it right – professionals train until they no longer get it wrong.