New developments in technology have brought the capability for all fire departments to utilize immersive virtual reality. This equipment costs significantly less than what previous forms of virtual reality hardware cost, and has brought the technology within grasp of fire departments throughout the world.
Over the past two years virtual reality (VR) is quickly becoming a widely-discussed topic throughout the world of technology. VR notably hit the mainstream when Facebook purchased the virtual reality system Oculus Rift for approximately US$ 2 Billion in 2014. A January 2017 report from the market research firm Super Data, estimates that 6.3 million VR headsets were shipped in 2016, indicating that virtual reality has finally arrived in a form that is practical to mass users.
Practical, commercially viable VR can mean significant advances in how first responders train and prepare for tasks at hand. Virtual reality has already made significant inroads in other industries enabling increasingly dynamic and effective training, that is also highly cost effective.
In medicine where surgeons are watching and preparing for surgery using virtual reality. VR is being utilized in education where teachers are developing entire educational programs around the use of VR equipment, and advertising where companies are developing entire experiences for their products using virtual reality.
Why not use this technology to train firefighters for both routine and unusual situations?
What is Virtual Reality Fire Training
One of the first things that we must clarify is that virtual reality training is not a replacement for live fire training. Live fire training, experiencing the heat of the fire, is an absolute requirement for firefighters. Virtual reality training should be regarded as a supplement that allows firefighters to stay proficient in tactics and situations that can make live fire training and time in a hot zone more effective.
Virtual reality fire training applies hardware and software specifically designed to immerse the firefighter in a computer simulation for fire training purposes. VR Systems come in many different forms that can be utilized by the fire service. One of the most common types of virtual reality training systems already in use within the fire industry is driver training simulators. These simulators are typically large cutaways of truck cabs where computer monitor screens have replaced the windshield in the driver’s field of view. The simulator presents the driver with differing driving hazards and conditions based upon the goals and desired outcome of the training. Some driving simulators can even provide custom designed maps that allow for your fire department’s own jurisdiction to be utilized. This enables firefighters to train in familiar settings for challenges that would arise in their own areas.
Virtual reality fire training systems also include large simulators that are dedicated to command, control, and incident training. These systems, like driver training, are typically large systems that can even require a dedicated room. They are highly complex simulators that offer interactive command training, typically with specifically designed keyboards and dedicated input devices to interact with the command scene training.
Both driver training simulators and command-incident trainers are interactive virtual reality simulators where the participants are a part of a larger training simulation, typically training multiple participants at one time. These simulations have a high degree of complexity in their programming, utilizing multiple screens and input devices for control of the training simulations. They create excellent customizable training tools to cover a number of highly specialized areas of expertise. While highly effective, these types of systems are typically fixed, and cannot be relocated easily. They typically require a large space dedication, and they are usually very costly, thus restricting their use to larger departments.
Today, there is new technology that can bring virtual reality fire training into the reach of nearly every fire department. Virtual reality systems like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift have achieved practical pricing while offering state of the art immersive experiences. These types of virtual reality systems utilize head mounted displays (HMD’s) that cover the eyes and give a very wide field of view, creating an immersive environment that gives the firefighter the feeling of ‘presence’, or that of being inside the simulation.
Immersion is critical when exploring VR systems to add to your department’s training routine, because it is what makes the experience of the training feel real for the firefighter. Utilizing a head mounted display enables the firefighter to look around – up, down, and 360° around and to see and experience the simulation; they are no longer limited to the two-dimensional monitor directly in front of them. Users can also interact with the simulation, whether it’s using a fire extinguisher to extinguisher a kitchen grease fire or using a 38mm hand line to extinguish a room and contents fire.
These newer types of VR systems and simulators are significantly smaller running on are nearly standard PC computers, including some notebooks, with the significant exception being is they must have very specific graphic card technology. The application of this type of hardware helps to make VR training systems smaller, more mobile, and significantly less costly.
Why Use Virtual Reality for Fire Training
Utilizing virtual reality in training is a huge opportunity for the fire service, worldwide. The benefits to utilizing VR are nearly endless, but three points stand out above the rest:
- Learning Retention – virtual reality is highly effective because humans are primarily visual learners, and virtual reality is a visual system. VR places the firefighter in a simulation where they are no long passively learning as they would be simply watching a computer video or reading a book. VR gives the firefighter the ability to engage and participate with the learning session, creating an active learning experience. Active learning increases retention rates to 75% or greater when compared to passive learning that has retention rates of approximately 20-30%.
- Safety – in the U.S. there has been an increase of approximately 21% in fire training accidents since 1987. The ability for firefighters to train for both the common fire ground situations and extraordinary fire ground situations gives fire departments the ability to easily prepare firefighters for extremely dangerous situations where mistakes are not life threatening. Being able to train on a more frequent basis using economical VR systems makes firefighters more efficient, and more practiced when it comes time to train in live fire situations. Firefighters can use virtual reality systems with HMD’s as in station training tools, these can be used on demand instead of having to schedule a crew off to train outside of the station.
- Training for difficult challenges – training for fires involving new construction technology presents its own challenges, where live fire training may be inherently difficult to attain. With new construction methods for buildings, vehicles that are running on batteries and alternative fuels, and aircraft that are constructed from new space age materials the ability to live burn and train is limited. Virtual reality can place a firefighter in a new situation that may not be achievable in the real world, i.e. fighting a fire on a Boeing 787 or Airbus A350 that has a significantly different design and material structure than aircraft of previous generations.
These examples only begin to scratch the surface of the uses for virtual reality in fire training. As we look around the world today, we see all forms of challenges that are presented to the fire service that are difficult to prepare for. The significant difference between today and yesterday is that the tools and technology are firmly within the grasp of the fire service with the technology that is available.
Commercially available virtual reality systems are now a gateway to facilitate fire training on a more regular and economical basis.