Maplewood council member says Boy Scouts and firefighting drills don’t mix

Allowing teenage Boy Scouts the opportunity to walk into a burning house - despite the fact it’s a “live-burn training exercise” staged by a fire department - could lead to a deadly mistake, claims Erik Hjelle.
Hjelle told the Review that, in his role as a newly-installed Maplewood council member and acting in the interest of the city, he took photos of what he says were lapses in safety at a Jan. 8 live-burn exercise conducted by the Maplewood Fire Department at a house on Larpenteur Avenue. The home, in the 2600 block of Larpenteur, just across from Hill-Murray School, was acquired by the city with plans to demolish it and was used for the training exercise.
Live-burn drills are common in area suburbs; a city’s acquisition of a home in order to clear an area for redevelopment offers firefighters the chance to create an experience as close to the real thing as possible. Several fire departments conducted training exercises through live burns on the homes demolished in order to build the new North High School, for instance.
Hjelle, who has been a Maplewood firefighter for six years, argues that any “live burn” carries some risk of fire or smoke getting out of hand. He says the three Boy Scouts he saw at the fire, getting suited up in firefighter gear and self-contained breathing apparatus before walking into the burning house, should not have been exposed to that risk.

Photo proofs?
Hjelle says he got a call from a person he declined to name who was concerned about the burn. He visited the scene “as a City Council member” and took photos of some admittedly young-looking teens in firefighting gear and breathing tanks and masks. The youths went into the house after the fire was well underway, he says; the flames had been started in a back corner of the lower basement level of the home and smoke was pouring out the front upstairs.
Hjelle says fire departments conduct such drills in accordance with guidelines issued by the National Fire Protection Association, and he saw and documented lapses in adhering to those guidelines on the scene. The larger question, he insists, is the involvement of the 14- to 18-year-old Explorers.
“Even if these people had followed every NFPA guideline, I still wanna have somebody explain to me what the benefit is to the city of Maplewood to have 15- and 16-year-olds going into a burning house,” Hjelle said. “Do I think anybody was in danger of their lives right here? No. But why take the risk?”
Both Maplewood Fire Chief Steve Lukin and Oakdale Chief Jeff Anderson say the Boy Scouts of America organization allows Explorers to participate in live drills and carries insurance on them. Hjelle brushes that off, pointing to one of his photos. “As far as liability, you can sue anybody. If you’ve got a big, red, shiny truck out there that says Maplewood Fire on it, who are you going to sue?”
Hjelle says fire departments across the country use the National Fire Protection Association’s guidelines to keep firefighters as safe as possible. He says he saw “over 25 violations of basic NFPA guidelines for trained firefighters” at the Maplewood live burn. Among them, he says, were not hooking up hoses to two “secured, independent” water sources; a hydrant across the street had no connection made to it and there was only one hose hooked up to a tanker truck on the scene. Having two water sources is important, he says, because if one hose or hydrant unexpectedly fails, there’s a backup source of water. “These guys did not even hook up one hydrant.”
Further, he says a department pickup truck was parked across the home’s driveway; entries and driveways to houses are supposed to be kept clear in case of emergency.
Hjelle says the gas can he saw outside the house points to using an accelerant to start the live burn, which he says “is another no-no” under NFPA guidelines.
The philosophy of abiding by NFPA guidelines “really was created as people die and are injured in training - it’s sad to say, but you learn from the learning curve there,” Hjelle said.
‘I was there’
Maplewood fire marshal and lead Explorers advisor Butch Gervais says he was well-acquainted with the Explorer training on the Larpenteur house. “I was there. The structure of the building was never on fire. The only thing we had burning in the house was some cardboard, some furniture that might have been in there and some wood. . . It was a controlled burn with just some contents on fire; the structure was not burning.” Gervais says he had a firefighter stationed in the burn area, one in the door the Explorers entered through, one on a backup water line and another walking around the outside of the house to monitor the activity; there were, in all, nine Explorers and seven firefighters — 6 of whom were Explorer post advisors — on the scene.
Gervais says there was a tanker truck with 2,000 gallons of water with one line “charged” and inside the house with the Explorers. Another line was ready to go, and if necessary an engine could have been hooked up to the hydrant Hjelle noted. “The hydrant wasn’t hooked up because it was on the other side of Larpenteur Avenue. . . and we would have had to shut the street down.”
“If we had ever thought the fire was too far out of control, we never would have let the Explorers go in there,” Gervais said. “At no time were these kids in any jeopardy or any danger.”
Gervais, who has been in firefighting since 1977 and has trained firefighters, says it’s made clear to the Explorers that if they’re ever uncomfortable with an exercise they don’t have to participate. However, they seem to be uniformly eager to take part.
“Their parents put them in our hands and the last thing we want to do is have any of them injured,” Gervais said. “I’ve got a son of my own and the last thing I’d want to do is hand him over to anybody who’d put him in danger.”
Gervais says the fire set for the Explorer drill did so little damage the Maplewood department was able to use it several more times for live-burn drills. “The house on the outside was stucco. On the inside, the walls were lath and plaster, and behind the lath and plaster the house was built out of cinderblock. This house wasn’t going anywhere.” In fact, he said, when the department finally conducted a demolition burn Jan. 14, the lath and plaster finally burned, the roof fell in, but the walls were left standing.

An accepted practice
Explorer Scouting troops connected to fire departments around the suburbs offer youth interested in firefighting a range of training as they “explore” the vocation.
Maplewood Chief Lukin says Explorers in his city undergo the same type of training on-call firefighters get. “Anyone who would go into that kind of training has to have the same training - fitness testing, self-contained breathing apparatus training, how to (put the tanks, masks and equipment) on, take them off ... and they need to follow the same regulations and operating guidelines.”
Over in Oakdale, Chief Jeff Anderson says his department also has an active Explorer group, which can participate in live burn drills. “On a lot of occasions we take them on various drills to participate in those at the level they can,” he says. Oakdale firefighters are the “advisors” to the troop - similar to Scoutmasters - and train the teens with accepted fire department practices and real fire department equipment.
“Basically, we would teach them the same skills we teach our firefighters,” Anderson says.
Right now, both firefighters and Explorers in Oakdale are benefiting from a vacant building in town where the department has set up multiple search-and-rescue drills with a smoke generator. Equipped with boots, jackets, pants and breathing apparatus, the Explorers “have a pretty realistic atmosphere” to search for mock victims in the dark, smoky building, Anderson says.
At live burns in Oakdale, they’re given a less-active role. “We’ve had them at some of those drills. We may limit what we allow them to do in those cases. In most cases those are fairly controlled situations ...  (but) we wouldn’t put them on the hose line and send them into a room we have burning, which we would do with our firefighters; we probably would not let them go in to the same extent we would our firefighters.”
Other drills involve learning to use equipment like ladders, hoses and ventilation systems, Anderson says.
The firefighting Explorer program is a popular one; Anderson notes Lake Elmo just began its own Explorer Scouting post, and Oakdale has to keep an eye on enrollment to make sure it has enough equipment to suit up the participants.
It’s been a great boom to the department, he adds. “We have at least five current firefighters with the department who went through the Explorer program with us. It really works out well for the department, because it’s like having a ‘farm team’ - we can get a ‘new’ recruit who already has had a lot of training.”
Worth the risk?
There are other kinds of drills Explorers can take part in that aren’t so dangerous, Hjelle argues. “There are things you can do in a house (drill) like searching for people that we can do in other ways, like using a fake smoke machine. ... If someone’s doing something wrong, you can stop the machine and take the masks off and talk to them. ... Pulling in a line to put out a burning house, that’s on a whole different level.”
Lukin says an agenda item Hjelle had slated for the Maplewood council’s Jan. 23 meeting, to discuss “burn policy,” looked like it was going to be discussion of the fire department’s standard operating procedure for departmental live burns. He adds that he welcomes the discussion. “We’ve always used past best practices, and we follow our ‘fireground scene’ practices as best we can on drills like this as well as on real firegrounds. I think it’s a good thing to discuss it and keep everyone current and informed on those practices.”

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