Tuesday, June 28, 2011

TEEX Firefighter Training: Safety is No Accident

At the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX), we have the privilege – and responsibility – of training many thousands of firefighters and emergency response personnel from all 50 states and from more than 45 countries each year. Our goal is to provide the highest quality, most realistic emergency services training in the world, and the safest training environment possible. In fact, our emphasis on safety – both during training and on the job – is perhaps the most important element of our training programs. Our TEEX Emergency Services Training Institute (ESTI) is committed to providing safe training experiences and promoting the importance of safety on the job.

Developing a Comprehensive Safety Manual
Our safety programs have evolved since we began training Texas firefighters in 1930. A simple manual that began decades ago with 3 or 4 procedures now encompasses 358 pages, 21 procedures and 5 appendices, which meet all local, state and federal requirements. As a leading training organization, we have had an opportunity to not only develop a comprehensive set of guidelines to govern our own training programs, but also to become a valuable resource for our customers and the emergency response organizations that we serve.

Our comprehensive Safety Manual prepares participants for our courses and addresses major concerns of firefighting during training exercises. It has three major purposes:

      1)      It communicates expectations.
      2)      It defines procedures.
      3)      It describes documentation and verification policies.

Safety and NFPA 1403
Our Safety Manual outlines an extensive set of policies on controlling training conditions and scenarios – another key element of our safety program. We utilize NFPA 1403 guidance to ensure a safe training environment. We limit fuel loads to ensure that temperatures never exceed 700° F at ceiling level in any of our burn facilities. Thermal imaging is used to monitor temperatures and to determine fuel load per room; TEEX only works with permanent burn structures, so these temperatures are easier to predict and control. We have to remember that we are teaching technique – not experience – and that bringing all students out safely is our No. 1 goal.  

We stress appropriate personal protective equipment, and the Safety Manual is a primary method of communication with our students about the gear required to participate in our training exercises. The manual also addresses our policies for vehicle and equipment operation, and describes other expectations for training site operations and activities.
Some major elements include:
  • PPE requirements
  • Fall protection
  • Vehicle and equipment operation
  • Weather conditions as a hazard
  • Training apparatus and procedure safety
Our manual is provided to all guest instructors and students, as well as all safety officers and Emergency Response Team (ERT) coordinators. We post our Student Safety Manual on our webpage, and it is the third most downloaded document from the TEEX website. You can download your own copy here or by using the links below.

Extreme Weather in Texas
An often overlooked, but critical element of any safety program is coping with extreme weather. While severe weather is out of our control, we identify and communicate a severe weather plan to the students and staff before it is needed, not after the storm arrives. The safety plan includes establishment of safe havens that are often associated with tornadoes and thunderstorms. Internet, satellite TV, portable lightning monitors and fixed lightning prediction systems on the Brayton Fire Training Field assist us in severe weather monitoring. 

High heat and humidity are elements of firefighting and of our climate here in Texas.  To accomplish high-performance training during high temperatures, we stress avoidance of alcoholic beverages, and we have a clearly established hydration policy. Charts and visuals help us inform students how much water to drink based on the heat index, and our instructors monitor potential heat stress or other concerns. We also have field paramedics on-site during all training evolutions to monitor students for heat stress and to provide patient care when needed.

Incident command structure and brief logs
Besides our Safety Manual, policies and procedures, how do we accomplish all of the other elements required for an effective safety program? The ESTI organization and communication model is paramount to the safety of our students. It starts with an incident command structure (ICS).

Our leadership team utilizes a Training Action Plan (TAP) and daily brief logs to disseminate information to the subordinate staff. The TAP includes an organization chart, assignment list, lightning procedure, transportation and field evacuation plan, medical plan, health and safety messages and a communications plan. This command structure sets the tone for our training operations, and guarantees that the messages contained in our Safety Manual are effectively delivered to our students.

Medics on call
If something happens despite all of our safety preparations and precautions, we are ready to respond to training hazards at any given moment. TEEX utilizes field paramedics during all training, whether it is classroom or hands-on training. The field medics operate out of our first aid station and are capable of providing advanced life support both in the field and at the first aid station. Additional Safety Officers are positioned inside and outside training structures to execute emergency evacuation plans if something goes wrong. A minimum of one Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) – in full gear with a charged fire hose – is put into action for each burn evolution. We use an established evacuation route, based on training scenarios, and we never use students as Safety Officers.

Of course, having a great safety plan and a great Safety Manual isn’t a benefit if it is not implemented effectively, and implementation must be verified, as guided by NFPA 1403. In fact, many of our customers have suggested that implementation and verification of safety protocols is often much more difficult than developing them!

So we start with strong procedures and guidelines, and to ensure compliance, we utilize a number of safety checklists. Our checklist-driven planning, safety analysis, and documentation steps help to verify that our safety procedures are followed. Furthermore, they help to create a culture that focuses on the details of high-quality, high-safety training techniques.

A Safety Commitment
Safety is not an accident. It requires a comprehensive safety program and constant vigilance. There are no excuses for student injuries during training, and the consequences can be severe. How could we face their colleagues, their families if we didn’t work to make sure that everything was done right?

The bottom line is that TEEX and ESTI are 120 percent committed to providing the safest, highest quality firefighter and emergency response training available…and we have the documents to prove it.

Available downloads:

Training Safety Protocols (PDF)
Interior Pre-burn Plan (Excel)
Interior Project Safety Analysis (Excel)

by Ron Peddy, Associate Director for Logistics & Safety
Emergency Services Training Institute, Texas Engineering Extension Service

NOTE:  Portions of this blog were first presented at the 2010 Firehouse Central.