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Avoiding the Pitfalls of “Perfect-World Scenario” Fire Department Training

In a November article for Fire Engineering, Burlington (NC) Fire Department battalion chief Paul Watlington sang the praises—and spoke to the brain-bending complexities—of pump operations. It isn’t just that each department has a unique mix of equipment. And it’s not only that new equipment and apparatuses enter the market, altering some of the fundamentals underlying our friction loss calculations. It’s that every call is a unique mix of factors, from weather and hydrant pressure to who is present and the nature of the blaze. Fire department training must encompass all of that—and it simply is not possible.

This is why Watlington especially advocates for fire department training that strengthens exploratory and critical thinking:

“Understanding the possibilities of failures puts you a step ahead. … When setting up training for your department, do not simply train on the perfect-world scenarios. Throw in some obstacles and familiarize each other on new numbers developed through testing. Try new things and be willing to embrace the changes. Understand that we may be putting water on the fire and accomplishing our ultimate goal of extinguishment, but there may be an even better way. The fire is going out, but there may be a better hose, a better nozzle, a better pump pressure, or a better technique to make it go out quicker and make things better for occupants and nozzle crews.”

Throwing in obstacles and helping firefighters exercise those “lateral/critical thinking” muscles is an ideal application for simulation-based fire department training.

Fire Department Training That Feels Real

Most conventional pump operations training is a combination of lectures and textbook study, supported by sessions of parking lot pump-and-hose testing. This sort of fire department training is great for teaching formulas and familiarizing students with the panel. But the operations they practice are limited by the risk of injury, the risk of damaging equipment, the cost of pulling hose and removing apparatus and firefighters from service. And no one is doing this training in a North Dakota winter, with an overheating pump, or a pump that suddenly sounds like it’s full of gravel.

Now consider a modern pump simulation system like PumpOps. This allows you to run complete end-to-end exercises. Trainees can make mistakes, and see, hear, and feel the outcomes of those mistakes. You can customize those training sessions to reflect your equipment and simulate any type of fault or obstacle to operation.

Most importantly, with a solution like PumpOps you can insert obstacles—like loss of pressure at the hydrant, pressure surges, cavitation, or a malfunctioning pressure transducer—in the middle of any exercise. Some of these (like cavitation) can be addressed quickly in the field. But that’s only if the pump operator is prepared to recognize what’s happening and take appropriate action. With a sim like PumpOps they can develop the feel and tune their ear to how a properly operating pump hums—and what deviation signals which kind of trouble.

Watlington reminds his readers: “We cannot take away the possibility of operator error. This is obviously not the best scenario when crews are on a nozzle in a firefight. Knowing how to rapidly overcome these scenarios could make or break you at the panel and determine the safety of nozzle crews.”