The Tower of Bad Habits

* Image from the Boca Raton Fire Department website

So, back to business as normal. Obviously given the title of this post and the picture above we’re going to be talking about training towers today. And it really doesn’t matter what kind of training tower you have, the fancy state-of-the-art one, the on-a-budget-one, or the re-purposed con-ex container type. Any kind of permanent structure that your organization uses for on-going training can actually have some unintended consequences if you as a trainee or a trainer are not careful. The training tower can turn into a <key spooky music> Tower of Bad Habits.

If you didn’t think I had lost my mind after the last post maybe you are thinking I have now. But stick with me for a minute. How can something that is intended to give us a readily accessible, relatively safe and hopefully realistic training experience create bad habits in us? Well, it’s simple really. Its because of those things that we kind of get lulled into a sense of security when we head down (or up, or over) to the tower to do some training. After a while we know it’s so many steps to the second floor. So many to the third. We know it is so many crawling movements to the corner and then a right turn, then so many more crawls and another right turn. We know the floor is concrete or steel or whatever and suddenly sounding for stability drops by the wayside. We just know a fourteen foot roof will make the second floor window for rescue with a bit to spare, a twenty-eight will make the third for ventilation. We find ways to cheat that are specific to our tower that may be a detriment to us at an actual incident. Instructors are just as guilty. We don’t allow the guys and gals to use their flashlights because we’re not using real smoke today and we can’t get it dark enough in there. The steel floor has been tearing up the knees of the bunker pants so we let the troops walk around more than we should. Or we loose or imagination and start falling into the same-‘ole same-‘ole and as soon as the members hear what the drill topic is they already know what the drill will be, what the benchmarks will be, how they must accomplish them and have a pretty good idea of what the scenario will be.  Trainee and trainer alike must challenge themselves to treat each training evolution as the learning experience it is meant to be and to push outside the comfort zone.

Obviously the benefits of having your own, or shared, facility at which to conduct training far outweigh the negatives. Departments don’t need to worry about the availability of acquired structures, making them 1401 compliant, acquiring permits, etc. etc., and they are generally available whenever the department would like to utilize them. Unless you are extremely lucky your department is not going to be able to afford to build a structure that is representative of every type of occupancy in your response district. Therefor the structures that are built are either pretty generic or maybe representative of the worst target hazard in your town i.e. the biggest building is a 5 story apartment building so the tower was built to be five stories high. Look at the brand new facility built in Boca Raton. Is every structure in Boca Raton a five story perfect rectangle with exterior stairwells? Of course not. How about Vienna, North Carolina? Is every structure there  three stories with only one solid wall? Odds are probably not. So that means the respective departments have to get creative. They must find a way to practice the lead-outs from the standpipe down the hallway to the fire apartment. They must find a way to simulate a garage fire. How about basement fires? I don’t think that in my travels thus far that I have seen a tower that has an underground component to it. That would be cool though. To actually be able to go in on the ground floor, make the stairs, fight your way down, maybe practice shielding yourself with a wide pattern fog (smooth-bore guys don’t hang me), practice exterior vent in a coordinated manner to give an exhaust point. Adds a lot to the cost, though. Shame, that. So, we have to make do. We have to get creative. There are plenty of ways to mix-up the every day training in the same tower you’ve been going to for years. Maybe we go all the way up to the roof and put the fire on the top interior floor and fight our way down. Or use an exterior entrance like on the Boca tower to do the same and fight down a level. Think outside the square or rectangular con-ex box. Be careful though! Just because those steps are cast concrete or steel grate doesn’t mean we don’t have to sound. It doesn’t mean we don’t need to practice staying near the walls, over the stringers, because that’s the strongest area. We need to keep our basic firemanship alive in the tower of bad habits too.

I’ve seen the advertisements for the new, clean burning propane buildings that come with stainless steel mock-ups of beds, kitchens, living rooms, just about anything you want. It’s great because there’s no mess to clean-up like using traditional hay and other Class A combustibles. Propane is better for the environment when it burns. The structure can be easily cleaned and the props can be used again and again. The down side is those props are immobile. They weigh several hundred pounds or more and are generally bolted in place and pre-piped for the gas feed. So once they are down they aren’t going anywhere. After the first few “reported bedroom fires” you’re going to have a real good idea of where the fire is, how to get there, what the lay-out of the building is, how much hose you’ll need, primary areas for search and that about two seconds worth of nozzle work is all that will be required once you reach the seat of the fire. All while done in nearly clear visibility or through clean theatrical smoke. Talk about building bad habits! Now, again, I’m not really knocking the manufacturers of these systems. They saw a niche and they built a product to fill it. I think they have their place and are pretty good but they come with limitations and unintended consequences also. Just keep it in mind and take some personal initiative to keep yourself sharp even though you have a pretty good idea what’s coming.

Being a Parrothead I am reminded of Jimmy Buffett’s song, Bank of Bad Habits. In it one of the choruses goes as follows;

Bank of bad habits
The price of vice fortold
One by one they’ll do you in
They’re bound to take their toll
The wrong thing is the right thing until you lose control
I’ve got this bank of bad habits in a corner of my soul.

Now, any of you fellow Parrotheads out there knows that the song isn’t exactly talking about training towers, but I think it draws a nice parallel. The price of your vices that are continuously repeated on the training ground may well foretell your undoing on the emergency scene. They are certain to take their toll on your skills and your preparedness if you’re not careful. The wrong thing in the tower is the right thing until control is lost on the scene. And we all have that little bank of bad habits in the corner of our souls. Ahhh, yes. Words of wisdom from Jimmy.

Now. Fins up!

And be safe until next time.


3 comments on “The Tower of Bad Habits

  1. Chief Tim, Vienna says:

    We appriceate you featuring our tower in Vienna, North Carolina in your category of “Backwards and Stupid.” However, we feel like it is an excellent elevated platform for rope training and ladder training. We will use our state of the art training facility provided by the tax payers of Forsyth County to avoid any so called “Backwards and Stupid” Bad Habits…


    P.S.: Our bedroom community has run out of houses to burn for training so we must be creative to remain at the top of our field. Thank you very much again.


    • Um, Chief, I know that I cannot infer emotion or tone in an email or comment left on a blog but judging by your choice of words I think you may have misunderstood my intention of using the illustration of your training tower as well as the article as a whole and the name of my blog.

      “Backwards and Stupid” refers to riding an Engine, Truck or Squad (Rescue) in a jump-seat, typically facing backwards, and tongue-in-cheek referencing being stupid because the officers make all the decisions. It is not meant to imply that any departments that may be featured on this site either by illustration or comment are indeed backwards and stupid.

      I chose to use the picture of your training structure because when I searched the term “fire training tower” on Google in preparation for this post yours was one of the most unique that came up and I felt it illustrated the point very well that departments needed to be creative and intentional in the use of whatever type of structure they have to conduct realistic training.

      The main point of the article was to urge both firefighters undergoing training in training towers and the training instructors conducting that training not to become complacent in the comfort that the structure provides.


      • One of my FF found the pic and was somewhat upset. Thanks for the explanation and remember no matter who makes your decisions FF are never Stupid.
        Keep writing as much as you can.


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