Virtual Reality as an Effective Fire Training Tool
The reach of Smart Firefighting is now quickly spreading into a new sphere for firefighters around the globe: training and education. While smart technologies have become somewhat common in numerous areas of firefighting – from lightweight sensors incorporated into FR fabrics, to drones, GPS, and handheld thermal imaging devices boosting situational awareness – the area of training has just begun to get a glimpse of how these emerging technologies could make training safer, more efficient, and more affordable.
To be specific, tools utilizing virtual reality (VR) are beginning to make a significant impact in both the U.S. and abroad. Domestically, the new FLAIM trainer was introduced at Consumer Electronics Show in 2017 as a potential use case for HTC’s Vive Tracker accessories. These devices, originally created for use in video games, copy the movement of whatever they are attached to, replicating the movement in a virtual environment. For use in fire training, the tracker is attached to the end of a fire hose, allowing trainee firefighters to “extinguish” virtual fires with real-world equipment.
The headset offers a 360-degree view of a virtual fire field, combined with a custom breathing apparatus kit for authenticity. Additionally, a detailed haptic feedback system in the hose simulates the force of the water flow, and custom protective clothing worn during the training includes heat packs that warm up when the trainee is facing the virtual fire. Sensors in the vest also record electrocardiogram (ECG) readings of the wearer to collect data on his or her fitness, physiological response, and performance. This data can then be stored locally or in the Cloud, and later aggregated to help instructors compare results over time.
These tools not only reduce the physical risk to trainees during training exercises, but can save great expense in setup and materials. In many cases, instructors can pause a simulation to review with the trainee, or even replay the same simulation to give them a second chance to improve their responses. This, of course, is not possible with real-world fire simulations that can be costly and time consuming to repeat. Additionally, VR training can be conducted on the grounds of the fire station once outfitted with the required equipment, and used by trainees whenever there is down time in their schedules. Combining the physical movement and feedback with full visual immersion supports muscles memory and deep-rooted knowledge to improve the learning curve.
Some fire agencies in the U.K. – like the Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service (LFRS) – are also successfully utilizing VR technologies in their training, and are building their library of scenarios by carefully recording photogrammetry imagery from real-world fire fields. These images are then used to build the 360-degree virtual settings and potential scenarios. Teaming up with industry experts, these agencies are experimenting in ways to create fully immersive and authentic experiences for all five human senses, including haptics and force feedback (tactile), surround sound acoustics (auditory), and smell replication (olfactory). Developers believe that the more realistic the scenarios are, the more realistic the trainee’s response will be – from fear to exhilaration and adrenaline rush – thereby better preparing them to have the correct response in a similar experience in the real world.
LFRS is also one of the fire agencies to leverage VR technologies to reach out to their community, creating an ultra-realistic VR experience to educate young drivers and passengers on the dangers and consequences of distracted driving. The simulation, using a VR headset, places the wearer in a scenario of being trapped inside a wrecked vehicle as emergency responders work to extract them. The educational film has been very successful in making an impression, and is today is being used by fire agencies and police departments around the world.
The potential uses for VR in fire training appear to be endless, and while you can never fully replace the experiences you receive on the fire field, these virtual scenarios will undoubtedly make mistakes and learning opportunities less costly in terms of loss of life and property. By allowing fire fighters the chance to experience a wide range of potential settings and better mentally prepare their responses, a fire agency is helping increase the chances of proper response in real world emergencies.