Why fire departments should consider virtual reality training for firefighters
Detailing VR options, advantages and how this new tool can complement live-fire training
Fire service training breaks down into three basic categories: online, classroom, and fireground. Many departments use online training for National Incident Management System (NIMS) courses, annual right-to-know and bloodborne pathogen refreshers, and other standardized training. With technological advances, classroom training has progressed from straight lectures with study materials to animated and video-simulated fireground training.
Then there’s fireground training generally, and live-fire training specifically. Historically, live-fire training has been the gold standard of fire training. It’s where we feel our firefighters get the most realistic experience and can get as close as possible to learning what to do in low-frequency/high-risk situations.
However, there are significant economic, environmental, and human costs we endure to provide live-fire training:
- Economic costs include the operation of apparatus, support vehicles, and equipment; construction and maintenance costs for burn structures; and costs associated with facilities, materials, and qualified trainers. There are also expenses related to ensuring compliance with state law or NFPA 1403: Standard on Live Fire Training Operations, and the potential for liability costs if something goes wrong during the training.
- Environmental costs include exhaust from apparatus, generators, and mechanized equipment; water and foam discharge; wastewater runoff from repetitive and extended live-fire training operations; and air pollution caused by setting materials to burn.
- Human costs include exposure to carcinogens, pollutants, and contaminants, as well as the risk that firefighters will be seriously injured or killed during the training.
Let’s focus on the human cost. Whenever a firefighter, especially an inexperienced one, dons full PPE and goes out for a training evolution, the risk of injury or death stares us in the face. That risk is real. According to NFPA annual tracking, in 2018 there were over 8,000 training injuries (14% of all firefighter injuries), and 11 training deaths (17% of all firefighter deaths).
Speaking as a firefighter, I’ll accept the dangers of our profession, doing whatever I can to minimize risk. Still, I didn’t sign up to become permanently disabled or die in training. Speaking as a chief, why would I want to live with the knowledge a firefighter was permanently injured or killed in training for which I was responsible?
On top of all this, most current training is postponed due to the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. So, how about we apply some continuous improvement principles and consider virtual reality (VR) as a complement to live-fire training?
What Is Virtual Reality?
As defined by the Virtual Reality Society, VR describes a three-dimensional, computer-generated environment that can be explored and interacted with by an individual. That individual becomes part of this virtual world, immersed in this environment. While there, they can manipulate objects or perform a series of actions.
Applied to fire service training, VR uniquely places firefighters in a multitude of scenarios. In all these scenarios, VR breaks down response, arrival, size-up, search and rescue, and suppression activities. Firefighters learn and put their skills to the test, and build on those skills in a safe environment.
Advantages of VR Training
The positive impact VR training has on economic, environmental, and human costs is so comprehensive that it becomes self-evident how important this technology is to the fire service. Apparatus and fuel-powered equipment isn’t used, providing economic and environmental savings. Water doesn’t flow, materials aren’t burned, pollutants aren’t breathed or absorbed, and PPE doesn’t have to be washed. Finally, and most importantly, VR minimizes the risk of serious injury or death. Indeed, VR training supports any department’s sustainability programs and goals.
In addition to the above, VR is a cost-effective alternative to live-fire training. It provides a wide range and choice of scenarios, creates a highly engaging training environment, and provides a method for data collection, allowing for adaptive learning.
One additional benefit is the potential impact on recruitment and retention. VR gives applicants as realistic an introduction as possible to the world of firefighting. Currently, we perform psychological and physical tests and background checks to assess a candidate’s fit for the job, sometimes accompanied by introductory films designed to give them some familiarity with the world they wish to enter. Imagine, though, being able to provide applicants a method that virtually puts them in the scene. Not just by watching another firefighter with a GoPro on their helmet, but by immersing them in that burning structure or wildfire. The impact on retention will be worth measuring as VR becomes more prevalent.
The Range of VR Options
VR spans a broad spectrum in terms of experience, functionality, and cost. Options include:
- An app: To access different fire scenarios in which firefighters can participate using a cardboard viewer into which their mobile device fits.
- A VR headset designed for use alone or in a group: Training can be held online using apps or training programs with more immersive technology.
- A fully immersive VR ensemble with helmet, turnout gear, headset, and nozzle: This ensemble allows the user to experience heat, water pressure, breathing apparatus, and even smell while placed into structural, wildfire, hazmat, search and rescue, and other scenarios.
How VR Complements Live-Fire Training
As I stated earlier, virtual reality training for firefighters complements, rather than replaces, live-fire training. Indeed, the current limitations of VR are well documented. For VR to work seamlessly for firefighter training, we will need to:
- Develop technology that more accurately demands, tests, and measures physical and psychological responses to scenarios.
- Build firefighter acceptance of this new technology.
- Create team capability. Currently, the technology puts the firefighter into the scenario alone, rather than the way we routinely work—with another firefighter or a crew.
Despite these current limitations, VR provides immersive learning technologies well suited to fire training objectives. Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) allows instructors to create animated visual content with imaging software. CGI is modular, scalable, and deployable, so instructors can create training scenarios and easily share them with firefighters.
Another option is replaying 360-degree video filmed in real life to the viewer via a VR headset. The content is consumed passively and allows for intuitive classroom learning. A third option is the creation of photorealistic content, which creates real-life experiences in virtual environments. Although time-intensive, this type of content is beneficial for highly tactical, skills-based training.
The New Tool in the Training Toolbox
Although VR is in its infancy in the fire service, departments and states are increasingly discovering its benefits. The Houston (TX) and Cosumnes (CA) fire departments have integrated virtual reality into their training programs. Kentucky has approved firefighter VR training.
The reduction VR provides in the economic, environmental, and human costs associated with fire training, and the tangible benefits it offers, are too significant to ignore. Add in today’s environment where social distancing further complicates training, and it becomes clear that fire agencies must consider VR training.
- Engelbrecht H. A SWOT Analysis of the Field of Virtual Reality for Firefighter Training. Frontiers in Robotics and AI. Vol. 6 (2019): 101. Retrieved 5/23/20 from https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/frobt.2019.00101
- Virtual Reality Preps CA Firefighters for the Real Thing. Firehouse. December 15, 2019. Retrieved 5/23/20 from https://www.firehouse.com/tech-comm/video/21118218/virtual-reality-googles-prepare-ca-firefighters-for-the-real-thing