In May 2015 the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) published an extensive report entitled ‘Research Roadmap for Smart Firefighting’. The report spoke of the need for the fire service to take advantage of new and evolving technologies for realistic training including immersive reality, augmented reality and haptics. The new methods of training are now available for the fire service.
Simulation training is not new. We have all flown in planes where the pilot learnt and maintained their skills in simulators. The military has been using a wide range of simulators for skills and battle training. The police have been using shoot/no shoot simulators for decades. The quality of these simulators has improved over time and the current systems provide a very realistic experience.
There are many other industries now using Virtual Reality (VR) training, and these include medicine, business, education and space exploration to name a few.
What is the difference between VR and Immersive Reality?
Virtual Reality is a purely visual experience with content in the VR headset. Immersive Reality is much more. It is an experiential system made up of a combination of advanced learning theory, data science and advanced spatial design. It enables employees to train in a safe and engaging environment where the user also has a range of other sensory experiences. According to Edelman’s Theory of Neuronal Group Selection (a theory about brain development), more elaborate brain connections form when multisensory learning occurs compared to single sensory learning.
The concept of learning by using multiple senses is supported by a large body of research. In a recent paper entitled ‘Experiential Learning: An overview’ Professor Joane Wright, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Queensland University built on Kolb’s earlier work in this space. In essence experiential learning is a four-stage cycle. It begins with allowing participants to observe, review and reflect on their experience. They then need to reflect critically on the links between their experience and previous experiences or theory. Experiential learning is an ongoing process. The paper reinforces the current drivers of change and the need to address the required workforce skills for the future.
Another major issue for the fire service is to deal with the different generations within the workforce. They will learn and engage in different ways. The new technologies will assist in that process.
Current research shows retention rates of 75–90% for immersive learning compared to 20% for traditional audio visual/video training.
Immersive learning for the fire service has evolved into a multisensory learning experience. The latest technology now includes visuals of the fire, radiated heat levels proportional to the proximity of the fire, sounds from inside the building such as alarms, breaking glass and other background noise, and haptics in the form of jet reaction from the nozzle created by the force-feedback hose reel. The jet reaction is proportional to the pressure and volume of water being discharged. The sensory engagement enhances the learning experience and increases cognitive retention.
Does Immersive Learning work?
Research undertaken by Stanford University and Technical University, Denmark showed that virtual learning produced significantly better results than conventional training. There was a 76% increase in learning effectiveness and retention rates improved by 75%. The School of Medicine, Atlanta found that VR-trained Surgeons made 40% fewer mistakes than conventionally trained Surgeons. Humans learn by ‘doing’ and we learn more from our failures than anything else.
In 2020 PWC published major research on three different learning methodologies: classroom, eLearning and v-learning (Immersive Learning). The study involved a large sample group spread over 12 different locations in the USA. The results for Immersive Learning were impressive.
- 275% more confident to act on what they learnt in training
- 4 x faster than classroom training on average. Faster training results in lower costs.
- 4 x more focused than e-learners
- 3.75 x more emotionally connected to the content than classroom learners.
Fire service training
A report produced by the NFPA in 2016 showed significant gaps in training requirements compared to the actual. It provided a frightening statistic that showed: ‘Overall, 50% of departments that provide structural firefighting have not formally trained all of their involved personnel.’ So, what are the issues?
Training is expensive. There is the initial cost of construction of facilities, ability to attend, running costs (including personnel costs) and access. A recent live fire training facility was constructed in Melbourne, Australia for A$108 Million. My inquiries indicate that very little is known about the full cost of live fire training. It needs to include capital costs, running costs, maintenance, wear and tear on pumpers, number of staff to run safely, cost of clean up of gear used such a cleaning PPE, cost of getting trainees to central training locations and cost of overtime for participants and back filling to cover vacancies created on shift.
Firefighter training is inherently dangerous. In 2018, 8,175 firefighters were injured in the US during training. There were 11 deaths. Major causes of injury included burns, smoke inhalation, fractures, strains, heart attack and stroke. According to the NFPA, the cost of all injuries to firefighters in 2018 was between $1.6 and $5.9 billion. It was not possible to separate out the costs of injuries in training, but based on the fact that 14% of injuries occur in training, the costs are significant.
Immersive Learning in the fire service Whilst the concept of Immersive Learning is relatively new the fire service has been using simulation in training for a very long time. In the past the service used available material in burn buildings. These facilities have in the main been replaced by gas-fired props, which are purpose built and costly to install and run. There are many who say the current forms of training no longer represent what occurs on the fire ground.
The following is a quote from an anonymous firefighter as part of research undertaken as part of a NIST report into the use of virtual reality by emergency services:
‘There is no replacing real experience. As the number of fires dwindle nation wide, I think our dumbed down hyper sterilized training has become a detriment to firefighters. It is no longer realistic and does not prepare us.’
The comment would be strongly supported by many in the fire service. The question could be that fire services are breaching OH&S by not providing training that replicates what they will encounter on the fire ground.
The latest technology provides an additional pathway to learning. I am not suggesting doing away with live fire training but rather advocating for blended learning that takes advantage of today’s technologies and using immersive learning to supplement existing live fire training.
What are the key issues relating to fire-service training? How does immersive learning address these issues?
1. Health and safety
If using virtual learning, there is no exposure of the trainees and instructor to the products of combustion although the trainee can be immersed in a smoke-filled room or exposed to toxic chemicals in the virtual world. Safe to use AFFF with no risk to the trainee. It is possible to expose the trainee to extremely dangerous scenarios that it is not possible to do on a fire training ground (e.g. BLEVE).
2. Learning outcomes
We learn from making mistakes and this can be done safely in the virtual environment. It is possible to halt the training session and repeat as often as required to achieve muscle memory and instinctive responses. There is also considerable evidence that the outcomes of ‘doing’ and making mistakes provides a greater retention of knowledge.
There are no environmental consequences of using virtual learning; no smoke, no runoff, no toxic residue and no waste of potable water even though the scenario may involve the use of materials such as AFFF and other hazardous materials. Training can take place indoors regardless of weather.
To be effective the scenarios must be based on science and physics and have the look and feel of a real fire, taking into account the types materials burning and the length of pre-burn prior to attack. The amount of extinguishing agent used and the time taken to knock down and extinguish the fire must be consistent with the same materials in reality. The instructor may increase the degree of difficulty to help achieve certain training objectives. These changes can be achieved at the touch of a button.
The cost of entry to virtual learning is a fraction of the cost of the alternatives.
- It is portable, and the systems are taken to the trainee to train at a time that is convenient to them.
- Eliminates travel time and associated costs such as overtime.
- Reduces the impact of wear and tear on equipment such as fire apparatus, costs of consumables.
- Reduces the cleaning costs of firefighting kit after each exposure to the products of combustion such as container-based training.
Immersive learning is now available for the fire service and can be used for firefighting skills training, incident command and fire investigation. It is up to the fire service to use these technologies to provide realistic training.
A recent advice from the US Fire Administration advised that VR training for the fire service may save lives.
‘Train like it is real; train as if your life depends on getting it right.’
For more information, go to www.flaimsystems.com
Dr. Jeff Godfredson