Firefighter training in the electronic age

CarolinaFireJournal - Randal Rhodes
Randal Rhodes
10/10/2014 -

For seasoned fire instructors, new hires coming into the force can be a challenge when it comes to instructional media. These young new hires are entering the workforce with a mindset geared towards technology and its various uses. They were raised and received their education through a variety of electronic marvels not present in school “in our days.” In fact, I was in my sophomore year of high school when the first hand-held calculators were being mass-produced. Nowadays, graduating students have had years of experience with smartphones, tablets, notebooks, laptops, and phablets. Instructing students with this degree of technology experience presents a unique challenge to fire academy instructors who rely on two-dimensional textbooks and PowerPoint slides.


When the DFW Airport Fire Training Research Center (FTRC) started assessing the need to upgrade the training center and revamp the training curriculum, this technology experience was a consideration for course presentation to future students. To achieve this, several firefighters with various technology skills, a seasoned fire officer as the project manager, and a software design company formed a team to tackle the introduction of state-of-the-art technology into the classroom experience and to enhance the overall learning and memory retention for students. From the collaborative efforts of the team members, the High Tech Classroom (HTC) was developed.

The Classroom Design

To achieve this goal of a new instructional environment, several factors were considered prior to the final product. First, the classroom design. To achieve an improved training environment, several classroom design ideas were incorporated. Traditional classroom tables and desks were removed and a more modular table was designed to help new firefighters collaborate and learn and work as a team. The six-sided HTC desk allows four firefighters to work together as close as possible as they would in the field as a team. Each seat has its own touch-screen computer monitor, wireless keyboard and mouse pad, with access to power and USB ports. There are eight of the HTC tables in the classroom. These tables face a nine-screen interactive touch screen video wall enhancing the delivery of classroom presentations, but also incorporate the use of the interactive software. The instructor podium has the same computer configuration as the students but can also display a presentation on the interactive video wall.

Interactive Software

The interactive software is the key to the enhanced instructional delivery of the course materials. Three main subjects are included in the interactive software. Airport Familiarization, Aircraft Familiarization, and Strategies and Tactics are included in the software package. The goal was to introduce a near-3D interactive learning environment to the students by removing the textbook and bringing it “alive” on the interactive video wall, but also at each of the computer stations the students occupy. The instructor has two additional icons to choose from to allow instructors to “push-out” a pop quiz with instantaneous results to determine overall comprehension of the material presented, and the ability to access the desktop of the computer for Internet or any other electronic material.

How Does This All Work?

When the students walk into the classroom on the first day, they will see their names on each computer screen. When all the students’ names are entered onto the screens, a seating chart is automatically populated and displayed at each student computer and onto the video wall. Gone are the paper triangle names used previously. The instructor then starts one of the courses based on the daily schedule. Let’s say the instructor will review Aircraft Familiarization. Each student and the instructor launch the program by selecting the correct icon. Once the software loads, the instructor can select one of eight aircraft types, ranging from the regional jet to the massive Airbus A380 aircraft. Students follow along with the instructor. When the instructor selects an aircraft – like the A380 – the image of the exterior plane is displayed on the screen.

At this point, the image appears much like a two-dimensional picture one would find in a book or magazine. With the touch of a finger, both the instructor and student can manipulate the aircraft in a near 3-D environment. Want to look closer at the landing gear? You can zoom in and see the front, back, and sides of the landing gear in detail. The same can be done with aircraft flight control surfaces. The student can see several yellow circles noted all around the aircraft. These circles point out highlights of the different parts of the plane – hydraulic systems, aircraft batteries, fuel storage locations, etc. Portions of the exterior include animation. The animation of exterior doors and landing gear allows the student to be more familiar with normal operations so he can detect abnormal conditions that may exist and react appropriately.

Ever flown inside the A380? You can now. By selecting the cabin interior icon, you are magically transported inside the aircraft passenger compartment. Touch the screen and you can “walk” down the aisle of the aircraft taking a mental picture of the seating arrangement, looking at various configurations, and finding more yellow circles that can be selected to review additional information. The A380 is a double-decker and the student can switch between the floors. All this information allows the student to “explore” the aircraft he or she may have to make entry into one day. This near 3-D environment has a distinct impact on muscle memory, which in turn assists with information retention. At our airport we do not have regularly scheduled A380 service, but we have experienced three unexpected arrivals due to diversion status of the intended destination airport. By giving students a range of aircraft — regional to the massive 747s and A380s — firefighters can be better prepared, mentally and physically, if there is ever a situation that requires fire responses.

Very few ever get to see the inside of the cockpit of a commercial aircraft. Airport firefighters are taught three things to do in the cockpit — Throttles, Bottles, Batteries — as the way to help render an aircraft safe. Inside the cockpit, students can learn the locations of the various controls, buttons, and switches that are unique to each aircraft model flying. The students can “walk” 360 degrees around the cockpit looking at the layout and location of various components, zoom in or out looking at the panels in greater detail, and identify items of importance to firefighters.

The same conceptual approach was used in the development of the Airport Familiarization software. With the FAA and ICAO using standard markings, lighting, and signage, firefighters from all over the United States and the world can be trained to know where they are at any given moment on the movement area of the airport. Situational awareness prevents potential accidents, injuries and runway incursions. Through the generic airport created for the software, students learn about the various signage, lighting and markings used on the airport.

The old instructional style was the use of photos and flash cards to identify various components of the airport operations area. With the interactive software, students can visually identify the item of interest, see a definition and picture, and can now can see how that light, marking, or sign relates to other lights, signage, or markings and to the airport in that 3-D environment. Students can review the material in daytime or nighttime driving conditions. They can even “fly” down the runway, seeing the runway from the pilot’s perspective. Knowing the airport signage, lighting, and markings provides that level of situational awareness — knowing where they are at any given moment. With the enhanced muscle memory, students can use those skills to arrive at the location of an aircraft emergency within the shortest amount of time possible while responding safely.

Strategies and Tactics

The final section of the interactive software is the Strategies and Tactics course. While developing the concept of Strategies and Tactics, we looked at ways to move forward from the magnetic paper airplanes and fire trucks to something more interactive and realistic. The FTRC wanted to improve the various tasks associated with developing tactics on scene at an aircraft accident. The outcome with the interactive software is a very unique concept; the instructor can use Internet maps of various airports around the world, giving firefighters from those various airports an opportunity to work within their own airport while at the FTRC. The instructor can utilize various areas at an airport, use a snapshot of the area selected, introduce various aircraft incidents on a runway, taxiway, at the gate, or anywhere on or off the airport for the scenario. The instructor then can “send” the scenario to each person at each table working as a team to develop and consider vehicle placements, incident command considerations, resource allocation, and any other tactical consideration that would be addressed in the scenario. The instructor can bring completed projects up onto the interactive video wall for an open forum of classroom discussion. With the diversity of agencies, states and countries, invaluable information can be passed along and potentially incorporated into operating procedures.

This is just the first step in the creation of a more modern learning environment for firefighters. The application of the interactive software can be used for law enforcement or airport operations personnel to greatly enhance operational considerations and initial employee training. To firefighters, the opportunities to improve muscle memory skills and information retention are also improved by the use of familiar but new technology in the classroom.

Battalion Chief Randal Rhodes is the training chief for the Fire Training Research Center. He has 20 years of service with DFW Department of Public Safety with a background in training of police, fire, and EMS personnel. He is a licensed paramedic, aeronautical flight paramedic, master peace officer, field examiner, and fire service instructor II. Rhodes brings nearly 20 years of Air Force flight training to the Research Center curriculum and holds a bachelor’s degree in biology - biological research.

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Issue 33.4 | Spring 2019

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