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Protecting Air Quality by burning down the house

By Roberta Burnes

Division for Air Quality

Frankfort City Fire Captain John Redfern is very familiar with the health risks of smoke.  “Dealing with smoke is just part of the job when you’re a firefighter,” said Redfern, “but not all smoke is created equal.”  Depending on what materials are being burned, some smoke may contain toxic gases that can overcome the strongest firefighter in a matter of seconds.

Proper training is essential for a firefighter, and the most effective way to learn is in something called “live fire training.”  Such training allows firefighters to stage and extinguish real fires in a structure that has been specially prepared for the training.  Firefighters who are lucky enough to participate in this type of training can gain invaluable experience that cannot be matched in a classroom setting.

“There’s no substitute for hands-on experience with a real structure fire,” said Redfern.  “We appreciate the support we receive from the Division for Air Quality to enable live fire training like these to happen, and to be as safe as possible for both human health and the environment.”

In Kentucky, it is illegal to demolish any structure by burning – except in the case of live fire training.  If certain conditions are met, fire departments may burn a structure in order to train their crew in proper fire fighting techniques.  Any fire training that involves the intentional burning of a building must meet the requirements of the State Fire Commission and the Division for Air Quality (DAQ).

“It’s not easy to find the right building for live fire training,” said Marc Rudder, Director of State Fire Rescue Training.  “The structure has to have room around it for fire trucks and plenty of space between it and other buildings.  The floors need to be strong enough to support our people and equipment, and there can’t be any holes in the floors, walls or ceiling.”

Even a building meeting all of these requirements must be properly prepared before it is burned.  Live fire trainings are subject to several state regulations necessary to protect air quality from hazardous pollutants.

“Where there’s fire, there’s smoke,” said DAQ inspector Eli Caudill.  “Our role is to make sure that any materials likely to produce toxic smoke are removed first, before the fire training takes place.”  To the extent practicable, that means stripping the structure of carpeting, furniture, siding and asphalt roofing shingles.  Asbestos-containing materials such as siding, roofing, floor tiles, and insulation must be removed and properly disposed of by an approved asbestos abatement contractor.

Even once all the hazards have been removed, it’s impossible to eliminate all pollution from a burning building, but it’s a trade-off that can actually improve public safety in the long run,” said DAQ director Sean Alteri.  “The short-term impacts on air quality are outweighed by the long-term benefits these trainings provide to our first responders,” says Alteri.  “Live fire trainings are necessary to the safety of our brave firefighters, and that benefits everyone.”

Depending on the size of the structure, live fire training may last from a few hours to a few days.  During that time, numerous small fires are set and extinguished throughout the structure, giving firefighters real-life experience in a variety of scenarios and settings.

Live fire trainings are limited.  In 2015, only 12 were conducted across Kentucky.  “It’s a rare opportunity to experience,” said Chief Redfern.  “The lessons our men and women learn at these trainings may save lives in the future, possibly even their own.”

FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: A fireman pulls a hose as he works the blaze.  Captain John Redfern helps direct a live fire training in Frankfort, KY.  A fireman braves the blaze as he clears the hose line.  DAQ inspector Eli Caudill and branch manager Eric Eisiminger conduct an inspection of the site to access what will need to be removed prior to the burn.  Photos by Natasha Parker

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