‘KISS’ — keeping it simple

Saving money building your props

CarolinaFireJournal - Todd Shoebridge
Todd Shoebridge
04/29/2011 -

I’ve served in the fire service for nearly 30 years now. During this time, technology has advanced, and the cost of equipment, apparatus, and training props has increased. If the words fire department, rescue, rescue squad, EMS, firefighter, or fire service is any where in the name or title, the cost skyrockets. It’s time that we as firefighters get back to the basics, especially when it comes to training, and training aids.


Training is one, if not the most important thing that we do. It prepares us for the situations that we face day-to-day. There are many fire departments, both large and small, that have limited budgets. Each year thousands of fire departments wonder if they will have enough money in their budgets to make it through the year. Look in any of our trade magazines at all the “NEW” items that are being manufactured each and every day. Every month publications show us new equipment, ropes, self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA’s), rescue equipment just to name few, all of it new, and better than the last.

Our regional training center and equipment have gotten to be the same way. Many of us have become spoiled in recent years with the multi-million dollar, multi-story training facilities that enable us to do everything from high angle rescues, hose evolutions, RIT/RIC training, search and rescue, Mayday drills, confined space, SCBA drills. Please don’t misunderstand me, these facilities have their place, and offer us as firefighters, and officers, the chance for many different drill simulations. My point is that, the majority of these same drills can be accomplished with a little ingenuity, imagination, and elbow grease on our — the firefighters — part and for a lot less money.

When I started in the fire service 30 years ago, we didn’t know what a regional training center was. We trained with hoses off the trucks, laddered building in our district with permission of the owners, performed search and rescue drills in the engine room, and walked or ran up and down stairways with our SCBA’s on toting fire hose.

Today’s economic forecast is hurting everyone from small rural fire departments to large municipalities. Budgets everywhere are tight. Companies are out sourcing work, employers are cutting hours, municipalities have issued hiring freezes, and some have been forced to lay off hundreds of our fellow firefighters, and it doesn’t look like this cycle will change anytime soon. For smaller cities, and rural fire departments the tax base is not what it was 10 or 20 years ago. Businesses are leaving towns, and the number of homes on the market and in foreclosure is staggering. Fire departments are not able to run out and purchase expensive training props. This is where we as firefighters need to get back to the basics (Keeping it simple, “KISS”), and realize that our basic training aids still provide excellent training. Most are very inexpensive to build, and can be done at home or in your own fire station. These props include, but not limited to:

  • Air management drills
  • Denver Drill Prop
  • Hose dummies (different sizes), victim rescue drills
  • Entanglement Box Drills
  • Pittsburg Drills
  • Wall Breach props
  • Bail out Drills, (Rope and Ladder)
  • Chain link fencing
  • Collapse Simulation Drills
  • Ladder Evolutions
  • Rafter prop, low clearance
  • Nance Drills
  • Directional hose evolutions (ex. smooth, bump, bump to the pump)
  • Black plastic or galvanized Culvert tubes 18,” 20” and 24,” for Search Techniques, and Confined Space Evolutions
  • RIT Drills
  • Mayday evolutions

All of these drills can be practiced with training props that cost less than $500. I know, because I have done it. Many of the businesses that I visited had the materials just lying around. Building supply store and home centers have lumber that has dried out, curled, cupped, twisted, and they have culled, and are willing to get rid of at minimal cost. Plywood, if warped or damaged can be donated to your department. Don’t be afraid to look for deals. Many times companies are looking to get rid of inventory they can’t use.

If your department gives receipts for goods donated, companies may be more likely to donate new or used inventory as a tax write-off. Electrical companies usually have a mountain of used wire and conduit that they have removed, or left over from previous jobs, and are more than happy to donate to the fire department to be used for entanglement props, or wall breach props. Fence contractors have used or damaged fencing that can be used for the purpose of building collapses simulation drills. Drainage companies normally have a piece or two of old culvert piping that they will donate to your cause.

Use your imagination with your training, and in the construction of your props. Remember, they don’t have to be pretty, just simple and functional. There are numerous ways to overcome budget restraints with respect to training aides.

  • Contact on-site contractors or job foreman’s for unused or scrap materials.
  • City and county departments all have scrap piles that may contain lumber, concrete, metal and plastic materials.
  • Wrecking/salvage yards all have used appliances, wire, scrap metal and automobiles that you can use for extrication drills, cutting torch training, entanglement drills, etc.

Another example; a simple hazardous material drill might be the use of red or green food coloring and a bottle of water or vegetable oil, that with a bucket or tank can simulate a spill or release of a product.

Manufacturers make millions of dollars every year on training aids that we can make at home. Think about what has been manufactured in the last 30 years. Most have been ideas from firefighters, the props, and devices that we as firefighters have made at home, or at the station to make our jobs easier.

As stated earlier, training props should carry the “KISS” adage. “KEEP IT SIMPLE.” Build your props with your job in mind. Train with yourself and your fellow firefighters in mind. Develop your training scenarios based on realistic job functions or experiences. It doesn’t matter how complex or how routine the scenarios are. If you can’t dream up training evolutions use past responses, past structure fires, look at internet video feeds, if you like one, then try and duplicate the evolution.

One important fact to remember is that the safety factor must always be considered when designing, assembling, and using your training props. Consideration must be given to the fact that these props will be used multiple times by numerous people of various skill levels. We want the illusion of realism while providing a safe environment in which a mistake can be made without damage to equipment or injury to the personnel using it. Every year hundreds of firefighters are injured in training exercises. Know your limitation, and always be safe.

The following, are training props, and a short description of their functions. All of these props can be used individually or tied together with charged hose lines to create numerous training evolution scenarios. In addition all of these props where made for less than $500 in materials.

The Entanglement Box is used as training in the event that one or more firefighters become entangled while in a structure. This drill is performed with the firefighter, fully dressed out in turnout gear, hood, gloves, helmet, SCBA, mask, radio, and any other pieces of equipment the firefighter normally brings off the truck. The firefighters then enter the box, and proceed through the entanglement hazards. The first time through, the firefighters are able to see all the wires, and the opening at the other side of the box. About half way through, the firefighters are asked to call a Mayday, and produce “LUNAR” (Location, Unit, Name, Assignment, and Resources needed), then self extricate themselves.

The second drill is the same as the first; however the firefighter’s mask is blacked out or covered with their hood and the firefighter is breathing air. These drills are done to build the firefighters confidence, and to train the firefighters to keep their breathing under control and remain calm under stressful conditions. This drill can be made more complex with the use of imitation smoke. The box can also be used in Mayday drills where the firefighter becomes disoriented and entangled, calls a “MAYDAY,” and a rapid intervention crew (RIC) is sent in to assist and free the down firefighter to a safe location.

The Denver Drill Box is designed to create a constricted area that a firefighter must be maneuvered through, and then lifted out of a window. The firefighters are instructed in the proper techniques to accomplish these tasks. This prop is designed to the same specifications, with the exception of the length which is 10 feet long, (the actual area of the incident was 11 feet long) by 28 inches wide with a sill height of 42 inches. These measurements are the dimensions of the aisle way that Firefighter Mark Langvardt was removed from in the 1992 Denver LODD incident.

The Wall Beach Prop is just that. It is a studded wall constructed with a space in the middle so that a piece of 4x8 foot by one-half inch sheet rock or paneling can be dropped in it. This enables a firefighter to safely practice breaching a wall using the proper techniques, and then advancing through it to the other side using a number of different techniques. This is good training in the event that a firefighter would need to retreat to an area of safety during a live fire incident in a structure.

My Hose Dummies were constructed in several different sizes out of old one and three-quarter inch fire hose from our department that had been taken out of service. These dummies are used as victims in search evolutions. The three pictured, represent an infant, toddler and early teenager. Adult size dummies can be constructed out of sections of two and one-half inch hose if available.

The Mayday Box was designed to simulate a floor or roof collapse. The firefighter follows a charged hose line up seven steps, sounding the steps as he or she goes. Once at the top of the steps the instructor takes the tool from the firefighter (to prevent injury in the fall), two pins are pulled out of the box, the floor drops, and the firefighter end up on two matrices on the floor. The firefighter is then instructed to give a mayday call, and then attempts to self extricate him/her self from the box. The firefighter’s tool is given back to them; they are instructed to sound the floor before they step out. A second drill is done in the same manner, however this time, a rapid intervention crew is sent in to rescue the downed firefighter and bring them to safety.

The Rafter Prop was designed to simulate what a firefighter may have to traverse, work on, under, or across during live fire incidences in attics, crawl spaces, or where floor joists are exposed. From time to time firefighters may have to crawl into low clearance area such as crawl spaces to search and extinguish fires. A low clearance prop was designed to simulate this activity, and give firefighters greater self confidence in tight surroundings. Wiring or netting can be dropped in this prop to simulate entanglement hazards in more advanced training scenarios as shown above.

The Low Clearance Prop was designed out of an old oak pallet. Feet were added for stability, and a small hinged door was added. Firefighters are told that the wall runs floor to the ceiling, and the one way through is the small opening in front of them. At that time the firefighters are challenged with the task of making it through to the other side of the wall. The firefighter is instructed how to get through the opening with and without removing their SCBA. Both evolutions are practiced. This drill is to build self confidence in the firefighter and to illustrate the proper techniques of donning and doffing SCBA equipment in IDLH atmospheres.

The Confined Space Prop/ Tube Prop is designed to simulate tight or constricted spaces that a firefighter may face in the event of a partial or full collapse of a structure. This tube is 24 inches in diameter and is used for RIC training, firefighter safety and survival evolutions, SCBA skills, or moving a downed firefighter.

The Dreaded Chain Link Training Prop is designed with two 4x4x8 timbers, and a section of eight foot by 10 foot chain link fencing. This prop simulates a ceiling, floor, or partial structural collapse. The fencing is placed over the firefighter — either with or without mask blacked out while breathing air — and the firefighter is then asked to call a “MAYDAY,” give “LUNAR” then attempt to self extricate them self.

During the evolution, the instructor may lay on the fencing giving it more weight, and making it more difficult for the firefighter to escape. Pallets can also be used for this purpose. The firefighter is coached by the instructor to remain calm and control his or her breathing. The firefighter is encouraged to slow down, not panic, regain composure and think through the situation. This prop is also designed to build the confidence of the firefighter.

The Rescue Device “Rescue Buddy” that is shown, was put together one afternoon when I was at home, with parts I had lying around the house. I had been introduced to a similar device called a “Save a Jake” in a rescue class that I participated in, and figured I could create something similar for a lot less. The Save a Jake retails between $65. to $80. I’ve got about $13 in this device. My Rescue Buddy performs the same functions as the other devices on the market at a fraction of the cost. It fits in my pants pocket and can be deployed in the event that a firefighter goes down, and needs to be moved to safety. The carabiners hook to the firefighter’s SCBA straps quickly — even while wearing gloves — then one or two firefighters can be used to drag, carry, or lift the down firefighter to safety.

You Tube has become a wonderful place for free ideas, free blue print ideas, step-by-step instructions and videos on training props. The props should be designed in which basic skills can be practiced, but as skills levels advance additional components of a prop or scenario can be added. I do warn you though, be smart when looking at these videos. There are right ways of doing these and wrong ways. Our goal in training is not to get our personnel hurt, or exhaust them to the point of hospitalization. Our goal in training is to build confidence and knowledge.

Train the right way. Make sure that the instructors that are training your people are qualified to do so, and do it in a safe manner. To many times our firefighters are injured in training exercises that could have been avoided. Safety is always priority one.

My thanks to Chief Mike Weaver (NR EMTP), Gastonia NC Firefighter, and Propst Volunteer Stephen Brown (co-instructor), and the members of Propst Fire Department and Cooksville Fire Department in Catawba County N.C. for letting me take and use many of the pictures for this article.

“Train as if your life depends on it ... because it does.”

Todd Shoebridge, is a 30-year fire service veteran, and Captain/EMT with the Hickory (NC) Fire Department, where he has served for 19 years. He holds certifications as a National Registry (PROBOARD) Fire Officer III, Rapid Intervention and NFA Mayday Instructor, Hazardous Materials Technician, Level II Fire Service Instructor, Basic VMR Rescue Technician, and Fire/Arson Investigator (CFI) through the NC Fire and Rescue Commission. Shoebridge has associate’s degrees in Biology and Ecology from Montreat College and is completing his Bachelor’s degree in Fire Science at the University Maryland.

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Comments & Ratings

  6/10/2012 10:22:05 AM

New Comment 
Great point Chief. Like you, I had never thought about this beofre, and it really goes to show that the more eyes you get looking at an issue the more you will be able to harvest.In terms of canceling the Mayday let me add this. When I read the tag line my first thought was that you were talking about the person who initiated the Mayday being able to cancel the transmission. I think all departments should have a comprehensive Mayday guideline/procedure. The first element is that all Maydays are no harm/no foul. If you feel like you are in trouble call the Mayday. A member will not be judged about this, mainly because the decision to initiate an emergency request is pretty subjective. The only who really knows the conditions at the time was the person who made the call. If we allow this to be judged by others then some members might not be willing to call a Mayday when it is needed.Maydays should not be cancelled by the person who calls them. There is a good chance that one’s situational awareness was skewed and that lead to the Mayday. It is very unlikely that an individual in that situation will be able to regain their situational awareness to the point where they can make good decisions regarding this. Even if the member does regain their ability to self-extricate what would happen if they got into to trouble again. It happened once, it could happen again. A second Mayday would cause so much confusion it would be next to impossible to regain any true element of control. If you call a Mayday then we will extricate you from the hazardous environment and we will not be judgmental about the reasons behind the Mayday.This still leaves the issues of how you would terminate a Mayday call. I think that the best way is to adopt a common term such as ‘The Mayday has been completed”, the criteria for making that determination, and a procedure to make that transmission. The criteria could be as simple as the involved member has been removed from the structure and that all res

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