Driving simulators for the fire service? Really?


CarolinaFireJournal - By David Dock
By David Dock
10/22/2013 -

As a new hire, most firefighters would think it would be a while before they would get to drive a fire truck. That is no longer the case for some departments. When the call comes in and you are the only one available to drive, tag you’re it. When firefighters are called upon, they must get the job done. Sometimes, that job comes at a cost. According to the United States Fire Administration (USFA), “the single cause of injury seeing more than a four-fold increase in firefighter deaths during 2012 was vehicle collisions with 18 deaths.”

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Using a driving simulator to train staff to meet the driving course requirements as outlined in NFPA 1451 before they actually get behind the wheel would increase the likelihood of success for the operator.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) repeatedly reports that there is an overwhelming need for firefighters to wear seat belts, that driver-training programs are inadequate, and that there are times that drivers lack experience with the specific apparatus.

Most of us will say, or at least we will believe, that it will never happen to me or us. But it is up to us to figure out ways to not just reduce the loss, but to eliminate it. Simple steps can be taken today, such as the use of seat belts and a formalized driver-training program.

Ask yourself, what training have you had to drive the “big red truck” down the road? For some of us, we have been through some type of formalized training process. For others, it is “on the job training” from the start. Some navigate through cones and obstacle courses in parking lots. Others find the road less traveled in their district to let the new driver scuff the tires a little to get the feel for the big truck. Hopefully, we don’t just let them get into traffic without some prep time with the truck. Remember, our trucks can weigh over 28,000 pounds, without considering equipment, water and personnel. It is not like driving a car.

What are some options?

Well, you might be asking by now, what is wrong with this type of training? I would say it is fine, as long as it is structured and has measurable goals and outcomes. This type of training used to be as good as it got. Most of us were trained like this and we did OK, right? But what if we had access to something else? What if it would provide us with a safer training environment? What if it allowed us to create scenarios based on our near-misses or actual accidents that others have experienced? What if we could provide realistic training to a generation that has grown up with this type of technology and utilizes it every day?

This type of solution is available to the fire service today. Driving simulators have been used in the private sector for years to teach bus drivers and over the road truckers safe driving practices. These simulators are similar to the racing or flight simulators that you may find at the arcade. It wasn’t until recently that the market opened up to allow the fire service to take advantage of this technology. You might be thinking that you can’t afford this stuff, and you might be right. For most departments, the expense of a simulated fire apparatus is definitely out of the question. Fortunately, the fire service has access to FEMA grants, and this is a perfect use for these dollars. You may want to join forces with other departments in your area and share a simulator. This can really open the door for great partnerships.

How Can a Simulator Help Your Department?

For starters, the actual apparatus would not have to be used as much for training. You would begin teaching the basics of driving the truck with the simulator. This will save on added maintenance costs, fuel expenses, as well as other tangible expenses. The simulator can train new and existing drivers to comply with state motor vehicle laws, as well as provide them with defensive driving techniques you cannot execute while on the actual road without endangering life and property.

For example, the simulator can create an incident, like the oh-so-frequent occurrence of the car that decides to just stop right in front of you while you’re attempting to respond to a call. Or how about the one where you have the green light and someone pulls right out in front of you. And hopefully this one doesn’t ever happen to you, but what about a pedestrian or cyclist that crosses your path? All of these scenarios could be potentially devastating to anyone or any organization. With a simulator, you can train for these situations. The skill set is programmed into our responses if we would ever need to pull that memory action into play. Our reactions will fall to the level of our training.

Standards

You can also use the simulator to help train personnel in accordance to National Fire Protection Association Standard for a Fire Service Vehicle Operations Training Program (NFPA 1451). Using a driving simulator to train staff to meet the driving course requirements as outlined in NFPA 1451 before they actually get behind the wheel would increase the likelihood of success for the operator.

By now, you are probably wondering how realistic are these machines? Well, a lot depends on which device you decide to purchase. The ones our department researched were all very realistic. In fact, with most of them, they are so realistic in the actual movement that you need to spend some time doing basic skills before you actually perform a specific skill evaluation. You can simulate various scenarios and weather conditions depending upon your location and infrastructure. You can use city, suburban, or rural driving scenes. Highways, city streets, or gravel roads are also options. You can simulate driving any type of vehicle, depending on the system you choose to purchase.

We could also learn a lesson from our military brothers and sisters which have been using simulators for years. As an example, pilots have trained in simulators for decades. It would be unheard of to place a novice pilot in a multimillion-dollar aircraft and potentially place his life and other lives at risk without this type of simulated training.

Or how about a tank operator getting in the seat of a tank for the first time and just going out for a drive on the range? Utilizing a simulator before hitting the road seems like the right thing to do to reduce and manage our costs and risks. I would have to say one of the biggest advantages to using a simulator is that whatever happens in the simulator, stays in the simulator. It is realistic, but it’s not real. Everyone goes home with lessons learned and no harm done. Most of all, training should be fun.

David Dock has over 25 years experience in the fire service and is currently serving as a Division Chief with the Olathe Fire Department (Kan.). He is an Executive Fire Officer through the National Fire Academy, and holds the Chief Fire Officer Designation. He is also a board member with the IAFC-Emergency Vehicle Management Section.
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