Rigorous training is the backbone of the fire service. Sometimes, though, it can end in the very outcome it hopes to prevent.
Last week, San Francisco firefighter Jason Cortez was killed when a water stream knocked him off a third-floor fire escape during a standpipe training drill. Late last month, South Holland, IL, firefighter Dylan Cunningham died following an underwater dive exercise.
Between 2008 and 2014, more than 100 firefighters have been killed during training, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Stress and overexertion were to blame for 70 percent of the deaths, while falls, collisions, SCBA failures and other mishaps were also factors.
While live fire training has been the gold standard of replicating the perilous situations firefighters encounter on response calls, 21st-century technology might offer an effective alternative. In July, the USFA advocated the use of virtual reality simulations in training exercises.
"VR technology is raising the bar in firefighter training while helping save lives and conserve valuable resources," the agency said. "The use of VR technology allows training for incidents that cannot easily be replicated or may be very costly to recreate, not to mention eliminating the hazards involved in 'live training.'"
Some of the benefits virtual reality offers, according to the USFA, include:
- a safe environment with 360-degree views
- training anytime and anywhere
- creating accurate three-dimensional environments of structures in the area
- preserving gear and equipment for actual emergencies
"Over the past five or six years we've been developing relationships and partnerships with a number of different companies really to find ways to leverage technology," Cosumnes Fire Chief Mike McLaughlin told Firehouse.com.
"At the end of the day, nothing compares to live fire training. The goal (of virtual reality training) is to get as close to that as we can," he added.
The advantages of VR training have made McLaughlin a convert. His department has used the technology in a classroom setting to train recruits on how to battle wildland and structural fires. In these exercises, the focus has been on teaching fire behavior and the progression of fire development, and footage was collected of actual blazes in order to create the video simulation.
"Each of the students that goes through the virtual reality side is given the heads-up display that not only has the virtual reality goggles, but it also has earpieces for the audio side of being involved with it," he said. "And then the instructor is able to work off of an iPad to control where things are, able to pause it, tell everybody to look up to their left, look up to their right. Having a heads-up display in, having the virtual reality experience with the goggles on, you are there, you're in the moment.—obviously you don't have the heat or the other limitations—and the instructor is able to walk you through."
"The stuff we use, you don't see each other as avatars in there, but rather everybody sees the same thing," he added.
For the training, some of the academy recruits were introduced to live fire environments first and a portion of recruits were exposed to it in virtual reality, McLaughlin said. While only anecdotal, the feedback instructors received about the training's effectiveness has been telling.
"The individuals who went through virtual reality first when they went into the live fire environment, they knew much more about what they were going to expect and had a much keener eye in being able to look and watch it," he said. "Because from a video aspect, you're able to control and pause it and move it forward and back it up and reshow somebody if they missed it. Where if you miss when the fire starts building up the wall and starts rolling over the ceiling, if you miss that transition it's not like you can go back in the environment … You can't freeze the frame and back up."
And what did McLaughlin think of the VR experience when he took it for a spin the first time?
"My first response to it was, 'Wow, we've come a long way,'" he said. "To be able to be in a classroom and see this video and have an instructor be able to walk it through and stop it and go frame by frame and have everybody in the classroom look up into the same corner at the same time to see what they want to talk about with the elements of fire behavior … this is amazing. Because you can't do that in any other environment. Whether it's a flashover chamber or even an acquired structure, the situation is too dynamic to be able to ensure that all 30 recruits see the same thing with that specific degree of fire development. But we now have the ability to make sure all 30 recruits see the same thing, even at different times.
"And then my mind goes: If we can do this what else can we do? How can we do more?"
That's where Suman Chowdhury comes in. An assistant professor at Texas Tech, Chowdhury has been researching how to use virtual reality to train firefighters in vehicle extrication.
"In the live training, it's not possible to simulate all real events … but in virtual reality, we can design any scenario we want, then giving the user the first-hand experience of how to perform a task," he said.
For the research, which he hopes to use to secure a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health grant, Chowdhury's team isn't just creating virtual environments for users to navigate. They're building real ones, too, in order to create a physically interactive virtual system, as he terms it.
"The virtual environment we have in our laboratory setting, it can provide the firefighters both the virtual experience, as well as the real experience," he said. "We have some physical objects in the virtual world, others are all virtual. We design an environment where a person is virtually walking down the lane and holding a tool. We have the physical tool, we also have the virtual tool."
Combining the physical and the virtual is something other companies have developed for firefighter training, too. Australia-based FLAIM Systems offers a platform that allows a firefighter in turnout and SCBA gear to battle a virtual fire. The experience comes complete with elements that allow the user to feel the simulated heat of the scenario.
Although the vehicle extrication training system is still in the building process, Chowdhury and his team are using a forklift warehouse environment that they designed for another study as a foundation. In that simulation allowing operators to navigate the forklift, Chowdhury said he saw the training's effectiveness as other users went through it.
"We designed the whole forklift and the warehouses and the people who worked there," he said. "From that experience I can say that, yes, the physical interactive training augments their abilities. Now for the real firefighters training, we don't have that yet. But we believe it will augment their abilities, too."
As much as virtual reality is a game-changing training tool, Chowdhury cautions that the technology does come with some disadvantages. For instance, visual fatigue can be a problem, and some operators might feel uncomfortable occupying and navigating a digital landscape.
"Dissonance is a big issue," he said.
Distractions can also be a problem.
"If the operator has never been exposed to virtual environments, … they might face a lot of distractions from the visual virtual objects (during the first time training), so the training time could be more," said Chowdhury, who also is working with Lubbock Fire Rescue to improve helmets and firefighter safety.
That factor might also show how age affects interactions with virtual reality environments. For his previous study, Chowdhury recruited college students to test out the simulations, and he saw improvements in their abilities. But that might not transfer to older members of the fire service who may eventually attempt training in these environments
"I anticipate that some of the firefighters who are more than 50, they might not feel comfortable with the virtual reality training. But we need to investigate it," he said.
Although the feedback is only anecdotal, McLaughlin has seen a younger generation of fire recruits take quickly to virtual reality training. Because they've grown up with video gaming, these firefighters have a familiarity to the platforms and environments, he said. That doesn't mean, however, that older firefighters don't also respond well to the virtual reality exercises.
"Some of our more senior members are the ones who have taken hold of it and pushed these initiatives forward," McLaughlin added.
And moving forward is something very much on McLaughlin's mind when it comes to virtual reality training. The department already uses VR to develop fire investigation techniques, and he sees a future where buildings in his community could be digitally simulated to allow firefighters to get an accurate idea of what it would be like if that structure were in flames.
"We're not trying to create the next shiniest, sparkley-ist thing, right?" the chief said. "It's trying to build something that has meaning to it and trying to build that depth into it. By bringing it into the academies and by soliciting feedback from participants, our hope is that we can continue to work with the industry to advance this work."
"Sometimes there's a very fine line between looking cool and being functional. Often times they are not that far apart. But it's important to have the meaningful side in place," he added.