By Assoc.Prof. James Mullins
Fire services now have the opportunity to embrace virtual reality (VR) to transform how firefighters across the globe are trained.
- Virtual reality provides a realistic alternative to hot fire training.
- VR provides a safe starting ground for new firefighters and to help them build skills.
- UK research shows that training firefighters in a VR environment produces similar outcomes to training in a real live hot-fire situation.
In fact with VR training firefighters can fight the same fire many times, learning how the fire reacts to different actions – all in a safe risk free environment.
VR will not replace hot-fire training, but it will give firefighters more confidence when they step onto fire grounds. Virtual training simulators have been used for decades in critical training for pilots, the nuclear industry and by the military. A modern, fire agency looking for innovative training solutions really should be implementing virtual reality as another tool in the training toolbox.
VR training for firefighters delivers much more than improved training outcomes.
CAREER AND VOLUNTEER STAFF
Virtual reality systems can put firefighters in an immersive environment where they face a range of scenarios ranging from the common to the unusual.
When in the immersive environment the firefighter wears a helmet, protective clothing and gloves – just like on the fire ground. They experience the visual but also the radiated heat, noise and jet reaction of the hose.
The firefighter also feels the weight and sensation of using the breathing apparatus.
It all adds up to a very realistic immersive experience, with decisions about flow and water positioning changing the outcome.
As the participant is moving through the scenario a wide range of metrics can be recorded. These include temperature, height above the floor, volume of water discharged and heart rate. The collection of this data allows for analysis of the participants performance and exposure to unsafe conditions. Training staff or supervisors can monitor progress and actions in real-time on a separate monitor. They can stop the scenario at any time to provide feedback or allow the scenario to play out. After debriefing the participant they can then repeat the exercise to improve performance as many times as needed.
SELECTION OF STAFF
When services recruit staff; either career or volunteer there is a selection process. VR is being used to test and observe the reactions of potential recruits in various scenarios. Potential candidates undertake a number of activities which replicate a range of work based tasks. A number of these can be performed in the VR environment. An example is the use of a hose line to enable the candidate to experience jet reaction. In the real world such an experience involves a number of staff to ensure the safety of participants. In the virtual world if the candidate loses control, the nozzle will just drop to the ground, with no risk to the candidate or staff.
The VR environment enables potential candidates to experience what it is like physically and mentally being a firefighter. For some it will be a positive experience but others may decide firefighting is not for them. Such decisions are of huge benefit both to the candidate and the service. The cost of engaging the wrong people has huge impacts on the service.
VR technology will also assist in building diversity in fire services, inspiring women, multicultural groups and young people.
VR will also mean that firefighters can train in relevant and interesting scenarios year-round, helping with member retention in volunteer services.
EASE OF USE
Virtual reality training kits can be very user friendly. It comes in three large suitcase style containers and can be set up in about 15 minutes. All that you need is power, a flat open space and a projector or monitor.
Drive an appliance out of an engine bay, set up the equipment and you will have an instant training academy. Any other flat open space such as a classroom would also be suitable.
Specialised staff are not needed to operate the equipment. It is suited to a train the trainer package for groups and districs and can be learnt in a short time.
The equipment is fully flexible and can be transported easily. This means it can be used by different people, in different locations for different roles.
Virtual reality systems take firefighting training to the firefighter, not the other way around.
This saves time and reduces travel. The system can be moved to multiple locations at virtually no cost.
Multiple users in the same location, such as a fire station, are able to use the system across multiple shifts. Training can take place at any time, night or day and it is not adversely affected by weather.
This means volunteers could attend training at a time convenient to them, delivering flexibility not currently available with live fire training.
Most fire services have a legal and moral obligation to protect the environment. VR training reduces the environmental impact of fire services. The system simulates the use of water and extinguishing agents without any discharge. The system uses no potable water and there is no runoff. If you compare VR to live fire training the benefits are even more pronounced with also no air pollution.
When we consider the current ban on the use of firefighting foams in all training how are firefighters to get this experience? How will they know about full coverage and thickness of foam blankets? They can find out in the VR environment.
OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY (OH&S)
There are many advantages from an OH&S standpoint. They include training in a totally controlled environment with no exposure to combustible products, the physical forces and toxic extinguishing agents.
In a VR environment trainees “enter” dangerous environments and practice safe evolutions in a safe, no risk environment.
Virtual reality fills the gap, allowing firefighters to experience and learn how to respond to scenarios such as a BLEVE that they are unable to practice in a live environment because they are unsafe. Delivering critical expertise for these firefighters into the future – making them prepared and confident, rather than stepping into a dangerous with no experience
The number and severity of fires is decreasing. There are many reasons for this decrease but it includes early calls because of smoke alarms, fire protections systems including sprinklers and society’s 24/7 lifestyle.
Many firefighters do not experience the aggressive internal attack of structure fires on a regular basis. Virtual reality technology means that now they can learn and enhance their skills prior to a real-life event.
VR training will reduce injuries on the training ground and by improving firefigher skills will reduce the risk of injury or death at incidents. Flowing on from this, fire services would see a reduction in WorkCover claims and lower insurance premiums.
Current VR capability
Capability exists to allow firefighters to experience CFBT training in virtual reality. The ability to experience flashover, gas cooling techniques and fire propagation in a repeatable, safe and environmentally manner means that knowledge retention can be increased. Studies have shown that while we retain less than 30% of information delivered by traditional mediums such as Powerpoint. Experiential learning such as delivered by a VR experience is retained at well over 80%.. Aircraft incidents, wildfire, CFBT, structure fire and collapse, MVA’s, car fires, mining fires, Size up and extinguisher training are some of the scenarios in the market now.
VR is an excellent tool to engage the community in which you operate and can be used at public events such as regional shows or open days.
It will also be a hit with school students during fire service school visits, educating children with practical skills such as home evacuation.
By engaging the community with a “real” experience through virtual reality training systems there will likely be more applications for positions as career or volunteer firefighters.
Many services provide training to commercial and industrial clients on a fee for service basis. Potentially the use of these systems opens up another income stream and has the benefit of people in the community understanding how to select and correctly use installed firefighting equipment.
The question should not be “Why should you use this technology?” but rather “Can you afford not to use VR for training?”
The original version of this article, authored by Assoc.Prof. James Mullins, was published in Asia Pacific Fire Magazine (https://apfmag.mdmpublishing.com/why-should-the-fire-service-use-virtual-reality-for-training/)