Firefighting Goes Virtual: Digital Simulation to the Rescue
For firefighters, there’s nothing like a fully charged hose in your gloved hands, pressurized water surging through the nozzle, blazing heat, and blinding haze all around. It can take up to 15 months to learn to think, move, and communicate in the midst of all that chaos, including live training in a specially built “smoke house.”
These days, however, it’s getting harder to get in all the necessary training.
Environmental controls limit the burning of fossil fuels and cap emissions, as well, putting a damper on live exercises. Safety requirements demand three observers for each trainee, ramping up supervisory costs. Budgets, meanwhile, are stagnant, and sometimes face cuts.
With live-training limited, fire chiefs are discovering the advantages of digital simulation. Borrowing technologies developed for the military where digital simulation has long been a training staple, fire chiefs are investigating how far technology can prepare their people for life-or-death battles against fire.
“The only way to maintain all their skill sets is this: There’s a growing understanding to go into virtual environments,” said Mark Nesselrode, a retired Navy captain and former commander of the Navy’s Tactical Training Group Atlantic, who’s now the principal modeling and simulation expert at General Dynamics Information Technology.
Nesselrode knows something about fires. As engineering officer aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise from May 1997 to September 1999, he once fought three fires in 18 days, including a flight-deck crash.
Some old school firefighters question whether simulators can produce sufficient training for the tactile and sensory overload of physical firefighting. But circumstances are breaking down resistance.
“As the ‘dinosaurs’ leave and the new people come in, digital is part of their life,” says Frank Montagna, a retired New York City firefighter of 43 years’ service who oversaw the department’s training and introduced it to digital simulation. “There is certainly more acceptance among the newer people and my experience has been that even senior people accept it – as long as it’s simple enough for them to learn quickly.”
Larger fire departments operate “smoke houses” – buildings constructed for the express purpose of training. Departments may also train from time to time on buildings made available for the purpose before they are demolished.
But environmental laws and safety requirements limit the frequency of such training. And that has an impact on the range of training that can be performed, limiting chiefs’ choices about what types of fires and scenarios their fire fighters should practice.
Simulation, by contrast, is infinitely flexible and permits trainers to change from one scenario to the next with just a few key strokes. Firefighters can practice fighting electrical, natural gas, or chemical fires and battle blazes in high-rise towers, single-family homes, big-box stores, vehicles, and more.
Simulators produce no debris or toxic fumes, require fewer trainers and observers and also allow more detailed and accurate post-action feedback..
The trick is making the training realistic while keeping the simulators affordable.
The Centre for Intelligent Systems Research at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia, is among the leaders with its Hot Fire Trainer program.
“The Hot Fire Trainer can accurately present heat, jet reaction and step-up forces, along with sound and visuals, to immerse a trainee in a real house, car, boat or aircraft fire,” according to Saeid Nahavandi, director of the Centre.
The Hot Fire Trainer seeks to immerse a trainee in a total fire environment. Trainees wear a virtual reality headset to simulate the visuals; a vest to simulate the heat of the flames. Walking on a multi-directional treadmill simulates climbing stairs or moving through a fire scene and the introduction of “haptics,” life-like components that mimic weight, feel and response of objects, such as a heavy fire hose responding to a trainee’s manipulation of the nozzle and the resulting rush and recoil of high-pressure water.
“Once you add haptics, now you can enter a space, you can move forward, feel the weight of that hose dragging, see that water spray, see that instrumentation and talk,” says Nesselrode. “You can put on a vest and increase the heat so that you get hot in the proximity of the fire.” Trainees must respond to changing situations correctly and those responses are recorded, allowing for replay and detailed review, which would be much more difficult in a live event.
Compared to building, maintaining or even renting a smoke house, a virtual firefighter training system can be built and deployed for a fraction of the cost.
GDIT’s Nesselrode demonstrated a system last year for the Virginia Beach Fire Department that included a high-end laptop, Xbox hardware, an Occulus Rift virtual reality headset, and a Havoc software game engine. All components are commercially available. The system was even capable of producing a chlorine gas smell, injected at the request of the Virginia Beach firefighters. Virginia Beach spends about $2.5 million annually to maintain its smoke house. The virtual reality kit can be assembled for thousands.
Vance Cooper, Virginia Beach district fire chief, said he was impressed by the system’s value in pre-fire activities, but cautious about replacing live training with simulation.
“It really fits well in terms of a fire inspection, where you have very specific areas where you go into a place and inspect it, like a hallway, where you’re looking for loose tiles or exposed wires and anything that’s wrong,” Cooper said. “It’s hard to take 30 or 40 students in this type of training and expose them to room after room for inspection. So I think that’s a real advantage to simulation.”
But while impressed with the simulated immersive fire environment, Cooper concluded that simulation “isn’t quite there yet.”
“Walking on a treadmill to simulate stairs, wearing an Avatar-type headset, you’re already in a virtual world, and it’s hard to carry a simulated hose,” he said, describing the challenge as “not insurmountable.”
Montagna said such digital-based decision-making drills were valuable to the NYFD. “We used simulations in the New York City Fire Department to train our newly-promoted lieutenants, captains and chiefs on tactical decision-making [and] fire-ground communication and it was very successful,” he said. He would create a fire scene and insert changes as trainees responded, then transfer the simulation to Power Point slides so that it could be shared throughout the department.
Montagna used a program called Sims U Share, on-demand fire training scenarios produced by Global Risk Innovations, a company based in Guelph, Ontario with a U.S. office in San Diego.
Montagna sees digital simulation gaining in popularity, but worries that more sophisticated simulations will push the technology out of reach of local fire departments. Smaller local and regional departments may need to pool their resources and train together on one common simulator. New York City’s Office of Emergency Management deployed a similar common facility serving multiple districts for some time, including a large-scale physical simulator to train fire truck drivers.
“When I was a fireman we used to draw on a chalkboard, with curlicues for smoke and say, ‘I see what’s going on and here’s what we need to do,’” recalls Montagna. “Now you can do the exact same thing with a simulation only it’s more realistic.
“It gets their attention more and that’s the simplest way to do it. You can change it, he said. “You can now show different kinds of smoke. You can do so many things. And right now I think it’s underutilized.”
David Silverberg is a veteran government and technology journalist and a consulting editor with GovTechWorks.