Training Firefighters in the Digital Era

June 2, 2021
How technology can improve training

The addition of technology into fire training can improve both the effectiveness and efficiency of training episodes. If not carefully planned and meticulously executed, however, it can cause confusion, distraction and waste the limited resources available to training divisions in an era when money is scarce and training time is difficult to acquire. In an era where new training tools flood the market, how do training officers make the right decisions on what is appropriate to simulate and how best to use technology in training?

Lessons learned

Thinking all training challenges can be solved by technology is a rookie mistake many of us learned at the school of hard knocks. As a new training officer in a combination department, I spent a significant portion of my annual training budget on a software that promised to “transform existing PowerPoints into interactive online leaning with just a few clicks.” I wanted to focus my limited time on hands-on training. This software “promised” to solve my problems by “transforming” the existing materials in our robust training library. The plan was to create primers for hands-on training from existing content. These primers were to be completed online and prepare our crews for upcoming hands on training. This would afford me the luxury of focused hands on skills training building on knowledge acquired before the training, what we now call a “flipped classroom.”

I made the purchase and scheduled my trip to the required facilitator’s training session. My hope was to quickly learn the “few clicks.” Imagine my surprise when the first bullet point in the facilitator’s training proclaimed, “One hour of interactive online learning requires approximately 70 hours of preparation time.” My heart sank. I now had the choice of sinking a training officer’s work week (60-70 hours) into converting a single online module or take responsibility for my poor choice and conduct a years’ worth of training with the remaining budget. Thankfully, I did a little of both, and this turned out to be the most valuable training officer lesson of my career.

When digital fire training system panels came on the market, it felt like deja vu all over again. I saw what appeared to be an incredible piece of technology promising to solve a significant problem with just a few clicks. The clicks were now on a waterproof wireless remote; I was, however, incredibly skeptical. My due diligence was on steroids. Was I really considering the purchase—a significant portion of my annual training budget—on another technology fix to a training problem? After extensive investigation and practice with the panels, I made the purchase. Though digital fire simulators have limitations, I’ve learned they are among the most innovate and progressive fire training tools available. Not only are they “clean”—that is, free of the carcinogens of live fire—they are realistic and effective if used correctly.

Improved simulations

The qualifier “if used correctly” is the subject of this article. Just as it impossible to quickly transform a PowerPoint into interactive online learning, it is impossible to plug in a fire panel and replace live fire training. It takes the training officer’s knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of the equipment, solid understanding of fire behavior and building construction, and sound instructor planning to be successful.

For a successful digital training environment, selection of appropriate equipment is paramount. A high-quality smoke machine is essential. The manufacturers have dramatically improved the quality and consistency of synthetic smoke. Legacy smoke machines—those we borrowed from theaters and dance clubs—produced inconsistent smoke. As these legacy machines heated up, smoke quality would improve until the smoke became too ‘hot’ and would become more transparent. The machine would then cool down and the quality of smoke improved as the temperature of the machine fell through the ideal temperature range. As the temperature continued to fall, the smoke became too cold and again quality dropped. This ebb and flow of quality smoke is now replaced by high-quality consistent smoke.

Another key visual element is the glow of the virtual fire. This glow can be simulated with something as simple as a flashlight under an orange traffic cone. This produces an orange glow, however, the level of realism leaves much to be desired. There is no variation or pulsing of energy, no accompanying noise, and no growth of the flames. The glowing cone contributes little to the environment other than providing a target for a stream. If a 2 ½-inch hose is used, no amount of duct tape will prevent flying cones and flashlights.

Digital fire panels provide an unbelievable amount of realism. The highest quality units allow the instructors great control of the environment. The difficulty can be adjusted, and the panels react to the amount of water and application techniques. The panels take a direct hit, even with a 2 ½-inch smooth bore, and the fire reacts or extinguished with proper fire attack. If poor techniques or inadequate water is applied, the fire continues to grow.

Beyond the simulation of flame, these panels provide the color and variation to the smoke which increases realism. The crackling of the digital speaker with the pulsing glow of a growing fire is real enough to fully engage even the saltiest of firefighters. Rather than pretending while lightly spraying a glowing cone, fire attack has a real look and feel.

Thermal imaging as an integral part of both fire attack and search and rescue. This must be practiced in the digital environment. This requires props that produce realistic heat signatures to augment the visual and audio simulation to develop foundational skills. Training officers drill recruits on the importance of a six-sided size up and searching for ELFs (exist, life and fire) using TICS.  

A key aspect of TIC training is the reading of convective currents. Simulated fires and fire panels do not produce a heat signature or convective currents. Adding a space heater to the environment is one way to increase the realism of a digital training environment with very little added expense. The importance of reading convective currents is a primary reason the skills learned in the digital environment should be reinforced and followed up with live-fire training.

Increase realism

Using mannequins is important to fire training as rescue is our highest priority. To find the “Life” in ELFs, using a thermal mannequin is preferred to traditional mannequins or hose dummies. In acquired structures, burn buildings or even fire stations, mannequins are difficult to distinguish from the background as the TIC screen becomes uniformly grey. All items in the environment are approximately the same temperature and thermal contrast is lacking. Adding a mannequin with a thermal signature assists in creating a realistic training environment, allowing searchers to find human forms with an accurate thermal signature.

Even with all its realism, digital training is only part of the equation. The benefits of clean training make this an exceptional method for conducting the vast majority of preparatory training. There is little reason to expose our personnel to carcinogens as they learn the basics of hose handling, fire attack and search. The sets and reps required to push newly acquired skills from scripted actions to automatic muscle memory can best be done in a clean environment. Clean training must be followed up with actual live-fire training to put theory into practice. Innovative training programs such as the ISFSI Live Fire curriculum provide templates for conducting training compliant with applicable standards with minimum exposure and maximum post-fire decontamination.

The training officer’s understanding of fire behavior is a key element of teaching fire attack. Realistic extension and fire progression can be reinforced in a digital environment. Strategically placing panels and smoke in logical areas of fire extension will draw students to overhaul in those areas. Rather than the parroted “We’re now going to pull ceiling,” students are challenged with synthesizing what they know about building construction and fire behavior to locate hidden fire or fire in adjacent occupancies or rooms. Placing the prize, or cache of fire, in this location will reinforce their thinking and action.

Planning realistic training scenarios is paramount to successful training. Whether you use ICS forms to identify your objectives and assignments or the traditional four-step method of prepare, present, apply and evaluate, a quality training plan is absolutely necessary. This is an article on the training environment, therefore we won’t go into great detail in lesson planning. Clear and well written objectives, however, are the most important preamble to any training episode. Once the objectives are defined, a training environment can be created. Be deliberate in placing fire simulation props to meet the training objectives.


Using knowledge of human behavior to reinforce search is another imperative in digital training. Placing victims in locations we expect to find them in actual fires is a best practice. Victims can be overcome by smoke without waking up, therefore we find victims in bed. When conscious, and faced with life and death fire conditions, adults do one two things. They flee using the usual path of egress or they fight the fire. We therefore find most victims in paths of egress or at the fire. Children may hide, therefore, once bedrooms, paths of egress and the seat of the fire are checked, a more granular search is needed. Placing victims in these locations reinforces learning and creates systematic and efficient search.

In EMS training we don’t use actual trauma. Moulage simulates trauma and a smart mannequin can provide accurate symptoms, behaviors and interactions of a cardiac arrest. With EMS simulation we are not exposing our crews to fatal consequences, yet they learn well in a simulated environment.

Simulation does not and will not replace live-fire training with current technology. It does provide a safe, efficient and effective environment to learn the core knowledge skills and abilities of the job. Be smart in designing training, match the environment to the learning objectives and utilize clean training methodologies wherever you can to reduce exposures. Through an understanding of digital equipment, knowing fire behavior and applying sound instructional practices, today’s trainers benefit from today’s technology to train tomorrow’s firefighters.  

In sum, clean training makes sense. We have an arsenal of tools available as fire service trainers. Some are benign and others are deadly. It simply doesn’t make sense to expose our firefighters unnecessarily learning pre-requisite skills. These foundational skills are more appropriate to learn in non-toxic environments.

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!

Request More Information

By clicking above, I acknowledge and agree to Endeavor Business Media’s Terms of Service and to Endeavor Business Media's use of my contact information to communicate with me about offerings by Endeavor, its brands, affiliates and/or third-party partners, consistent with Endeavor's Privacy Policy. In addition, I understand that my personal information will be shared with any sponsor(s) of the resource, so they can contact me directly about their products or services. Please refer to the privacy policies of such sponsor(s) for more details on how your information will be used by them. You may unsubscribe at any time.