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Fire Department Training: Is the Training Ground Too Safe?

William Greenwood has been in fire services for more than twenty-seven years. As Chief of Warwick, RI’s T.F. Green International Airport Fire Department and Senior Staff Instructor New Hampshire Fire Academy, he thinks a lot about the way that stress affects performance—and he has bad news.

Stress can have such a big impact that it can diminish performance quality by as much as 50%—even in well-trained firefighters. “The working environment at the time of alarm exposes firefighters to extreme levels of stress. High-stress incidents have been proven to decrease a person’s IQ by 50 percent in the first seven minutes of acute exposure.” That means that C-students (70% effective) in the training yard will fail (35% effective) at the fireground.

One of the most important aspects of any fire department training is teaching personnel how they can regulate their emotions to maintain their cognitive capacity under stress. Without these tools, even a firefighter with perfect performance on the training ground will make mistakes half the time on the scene of an uncontrolled fire.

“3 Challenges in Human Dynamics” and How to Train for Them

In addition to plain old-fashioned stress-induced paralysis—a danger for anyone experiencing a fight-flight-freeze response—Greenwood points to three key ways that traditional fire department training, alone, isn’t enough to overcome the stress of the fire scene:

  • The mental and emotional demands and challenges of an actual fireground can’t be replicated;
  •  Agencies and their trainings are made of people—whose information, training, and experience may overemphasize some skills and leave others out, passing their instructional biases and strengths and limitations of their knowledge on to generations of trainees;
  • Training must be safe—and therefore can’t match the physical conditions of danger that a live fire might.

By increasing the stress and realism in training simulations we can get closer to preparing for the real thing. Using realistic simulations in fire department training helps protect first responders against the drastic performance hit that’s caused by being suddenly dropped into a life-and-death situation (regardless of how well trained you are). It allows us to train for the unexpected!

Using Simulation to Safely Create Danger During Fire Department Training

There are free and easy ways to add layers of frustration and hurry to a training exercise or simulate other field conditions that complicate firefighting. For example, Greenwood suggests hiding equipment when it’s needed most or arranging gear to reduce or eliminate visibility.

FAAC’s immersive simulators can take this approach much further.

First and foremost, systems like the 2View Dual-Crew Driver Training Simulator are an accurate and effective platform to train standard apparatus operations and dynamic team collaboration. The 2View sim provides un-matched visual enhancement (it’s the only system on the market that meets NFPA 1500: A 6.2.4 training standards), along with force feedback steering and real cab movement. Additionally, the simulation scenarios provide all of the sudden roadway challenges firefighters need to be ready for: reduced visibility, cyclists and pedestrians, motorists ignoring sirens or intersection signals, etc.

But the scenario need not stop when the apparatus arrives at the fireground. FAAC’s pump operator training solution, Pump Ops, is built to help pump operators learn to perform under pressure. Each Pump Ops trainer is custom built with authentic panels, dials, switches, levers, and tactile/visual/aural feedback cues. The simulation software emulates hydraulics, water sources, foam, and a variety of hose and nozzle configurations—including reproducing system faults and failures. An integrated sound system provides a realistic engine, pump, primer, and cavitation sounds and vibrations, and a headset communication system includes instructions and pre-recorded messages. Pump Ops can be paired with accessories, like the FLAIM fire-control and nozzle trainer, to give hose teams and pump operators an opportunity to train on their coordination, technique, and communication in a shared, immersive digital “live fireground” simulation. FAAC also provides sims to integrate command and control into the exercise. inCommand ICC simulation prepares the commander for decision-making and on-scene management, allowing emergency crews to experience, assess, and determine the best response strategy, and cope with the unexpected. Once completing a scenario, teams are able to observe the consequences of those decisions and discuss their decision making process and the observed outcomes.

Fire Department “Continuum of Training”

This integrated, simulation-based “Continuum of Training” offers systematic, consistent, and concrete ways to prepare first responders for the mental and physical drain of an active scene. This “stress inoculation” protects their cognitive capacity, increases emotional intelligence, and gives them the skills to regulate their responses and save lives.