Hump Day S.O.S.
R h o d e s I started my career in the fire service in 1985. At the conclusion of my first full week, I was participating in an acquired structure burn. The burn was a local coordinated event with instructors from each of the
departments participating and a couple of state adjunct
instructors. This was the first of 100-plus acquired struc-
ture burns that I would participate in as either a student
or an instructor over the next seven years.
During these years, our state fire academy had a
very small career staff and a huge adjunct faculty that
conducted training nearly every weekend, moving
from district to district all across the state. Most of
these district training schools were acquired structure
burns. There was a long rite of passage in becoming a
live fire instructor. It included becoming a basic fire
instructor first, then completing the acquired structural fire control course and interning as an assistant
instructor until the lead instructor was satisfied that
you knew what you were doing. This internship
meant a whole lot of sleeping on the hotel floors of
the lead instructors (the interns did not get paid,
nor did they receive any expense money). It meant
chopping up thousands of pallets, clearing out bee
nests, cutting overgrown shrubs, removing carpet and
building contents, setting up burn barrels, and filling
Indian backpacks or water cans with diesel fuel.
Each acquired structure burn included a live fire
behavior demonstration done in one of the rooms.
During this lesson, a group of students would sit
around the perimeter and the instructor would ignite
the stack of pallets and hay and explain the fire progres-
sion from incipient to free burning. Students would
be instructed to take their gloves off and slowly lift
their hand into the smoke layer to feel the difference
in temperature. The instructor pointed out the air flow
pattern coming in low and going out over our heads.
Emphasis was always put on explaining the thermal
balance and the importance of NOT interrupting that.
Then, the instructor would demonstrate a direct attack
at the base of the fire with a quick sweep of the nozzle.
Next, he would demonstrate bouncing the water off
the ceiling to cool the gases and then sweep down to
inside. The instructor would say, “OK, when I open
the nozzle on fog it will totally disrupt the thermal
balance, and it’s going to get a little uncomfortable in
here. Once I do this, I want you to stay low and crawl
back out of the room single file and exit the structure.”
This was all done without breathing apparatus the first
few years of my service. Then, around 1988, we started
requiring the students and instructors to wear full
personal protective equipment to meet the changing
standards. While necessary, this improved safety but
did diminish the experience for the student.
Several horrible acquired structure burns in various
parts of the country led to serious injuries and deaths.
None of these training sessions followed the recommendations of National Fire Protection Association
1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions, and
soon a large contingent of fire service leaders were
calling for the end of acquired structure burns. About
this time, new government regulations were making it hard to burn in many areas. These regulations
included air quality issues that required all roofing
materials to be removed prior to burning. In addition,
any asbestos materials, typically siding, flooring, and
roof vents, had to be removed. What was once a house
that some homeowner wanted gone and could ask the
fire department to come burn it down now became a
permitted, expensive transaction.
The trend of acquired structural burns began to
diminish for a couple of main reasons. The first was
the hoops that had to be jumped through to permit
the burn, and the second was the fear from some
leadership that these sessions were too dangerous.
This trend has continued, and for the majority of
departments the acquired structure burn is a thing of
the past—or at best a very rare occurrence.
The lessons learned as both a student and an instructor
in the acquired structure burns that were conducted with
competent instructors following and exceeding standards
were undoubtedly the best educational experience for
understanding fire behavior, fire attack, and residential
building construction. As an instructor, you were skilled
in using the building construction, controlling ventilation that included closing doors and windows, and precutting roof vent holes along with precutting attic access
with ladders with staged hoselines in place to maximize
The Acquired Structure Training Effect
Accepting the risk can lead to great benefit