Fire Down Below: Australian structure fire training

Designing a successful fire behavior training program
By Cindy Devone-Pacheco

The Australian fire service has embarked on a journey of sorts. Until fairly recently, they took a more reactionary approach to fighting structure fires. Today, they are implementing what is commonly referred to as compartment fire behavior training (CFBT). What does that mean? John McDonough, inspector (the U.S. equivalent of battalion chief) for New South Wales Fire & Rescue, gave this definition in his class, “Designing a Successful Fire Behavior Training Program,” yesterday at FDIC:
“CFBT is an essential component of firefighter training so recruits learn to extinguish structure fires. It integrates fire behavior, development, size-up, fire control and ventilation.”

The theory behind CFBT is simple: to effectively and safely fight a fire, firefighters must understand how a fire behaves and develops under varied conditions.

According to McDonough, before CFBT was implemented, firefighters had little understanding of fire behavior. “My whole career was reacting to a fire,” he said.

Today, the Australian fire service is teaching recruits that being proactive in their approach to firefighting not only allows them to fight fires more efficiently—it also saves lives.

CFBT at a Glance
CFBT has two basic levels. Level 1 covers fire dynamics, including combustion, the fire triangle, pyrolysis, heat release, etc. Recruits also work with a gas aquarium, or what’s commonly referred to as a bang box, which is designed to show different flammability levels, as well as a doll’s house, or a small-scale model of a residential structure. The theory behind Level 1 is to give recruits an understanding of fire development, fire behavior, flashover, gas cooling, door entry, and extinguishing techniques.

But to give recruits hands-on experience, the Australian fire service has also implemented the use of demo cells, or 40’ shipping containers (much like the use of trailers in the United States), that illustrate gas cooling, fire behavior and allow recruits to understand key concepts, such as body positioning. “It’s really a kind of shooting range, or batting cage,” McDonough explains. As the recruits are brought into the cell, flames are allowed to build, and recruits, under the watchful eye of their instructor, are allowed to utilize different extinguishment techniques. “As the flames start to run, we cool [via use of the hoseline], then we give more flame, we cool again,” McDonough says of the process. “Then we may do no cooling, and we’ll see lots more flame.” Basically, it’s teaching recruits how fire behaves and the various ways they can react to it.

Level 1 also discusses door entry and hoseline techniques. “If you don’t control the door, that’s what will increase your heat release rate,” McDonough says.

Level 2
After completing Level 1 work, recruits move on to Level 2, which looks at burning regimes, or the difference between fuel controlled and ventilation controlled fires; strategies and tactics; the ventilation paradox; tactical ventilation; reading the fire; and case studies. “Through case studies, we changed our thinking about fires,” McDonough says. “We used to think that it was ‘a bad fire that day, it wasn’t me.’”

McDonough admits that Level 2 CFBT work includes something that Australian firefighters haven’t embraced as much as U.S. firefighters: ventilation. “We’re not good ventilators in Australia,” he says. “We have no aerials, and we’re very poor at vertical ventilation.”

Level 2 includes work in a 40’ “attack cell,” and covers some of the same topics as Level 1, but with the addition of situational awareness training. One of the major elements recruits must remember is to keep their eyes on the fire. “On the retreat, if you’re not getting the results you want, you must always keep your head up,” McDonough notes.

At this level, recruits also perform drills inside a 2’ x 40’ container, or a T Cell, so that they can learn how to approach and attack a fire that they can’t see immediately upon entering a structure. “We take the fire out of sight to give recruits the opportunity to take their training up a level. [Up until that point in their training], they see the fire immediately upon entry,” McDonough explains.

Resistance & Lessons
Although CFBT is giving Australian firefighters the proper tools to safely and effectively fight fires and save lives and property, the concept was initially met with some resistance by experienced firefighters. “We’re asking firefighters to change the way they work at the worst possible time—at the very next fire they go to,” McDonough says.

CFBT also challenged the idea of tradition in the Australian fire service. “Before, people thought experience was everything,” he says. Now, they make the distinction between knowledge and experience.

Perhaps one of the biggest lessons to stem from CFBT: According to McDonough, firefighters know very little about other fire services in the world. “There’s a level of professional arrogance,” he says. Fire departments think theirs is the best and their way of doing things is the right way to do things. But the concept behind CFBT stems from Sweden, and it is now widely accepted and used in many countries throughout the world, including the United States. McDonough’s advice: “Look outside; don’t assume your way of doing things is the best. Figure out what works for your department.”

Cindy Devone-Pacheco is senior editor for FireRescue magazine.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. SUBSCRIBE to FIRERESCUE

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