By Ed Mills and Mark Golaszewski
The use of simulations to enhance skills training is common in fields such as aviation, military, law enforcement, and medical services, where training in real environments can be dangerous and expensive. The use of simulation and emerging technologies has been less common in firefighter training, but interest is growing. The Colorado Governor’s Office of Information Technology and FirstNet explored some emerging technologies with the potential for improving simulation training at the recent Fire Leadership Challenge 2016, sponsored by the Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association.
Training firefighters in different situations that may arise on the fireground often involves a burn building at a training center, a controlled burn of a structure, or a prescribed wildland burn. Although these scenarios provide live-fire situations, they can be expensive in terms of personnel time and equipment and can also create the risk of unintended property damage or harm to the trainee.
Training simulations are used to provide lifelike situations and circumstances that the trainee experiences in a safe, controlled environment. The training value is maximized if it creates situations that the trainee can influence based on the decisions he makes or actions he takes.
Although simulations have long existed for the 2-D space of the personal computer, emerging technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) enable the creation of lifelike 3-D situations that may also include active, physical involvement by the trainee.
VR is the use of interactive computer software and hardware to create a simulated environment. The use of VR headsets can provide an immersive 3-D and 360° visual experience. The VR environment can be further intensified by sensory simulations such as touch, sound, heat, smell, or weather conditions. Common entertainment examples include video games such as Madden ’17, Call of Duty, and Halo.
Augmentation of the real world may be accomplished with digitally generated sights, sounds, or location data to enhance the perception of reality. AR in firefighter training may include the use of a heads-up display (HUD) incorporated into the mask of a responder’s self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). Such a display could simulate a smoke-filled room, a low-air supply, or a flashover situation.
Although we may view VR and AR as new and fresh, the concepts have a rich and diverse history. As far back as the 1800s, the stereoscope gave 3-D views of images. Commercial flight began in the 1920s, and by the 1930s there was a demand for creative ways to teach certain aspects of flying from the safety of the ground. Edwin Link, a pioneer in aviation, created flight illusions that moved into the practical application of training. The term "virtual reality" was coined in the 1980s when Jaron Lanier described a new system he called RB2 (“Reality Built for Two”). This concept allowed users to share an environment created by computers.
There were obviously many turns in between that led us to the current precipice of VR and AR. However, from the stereoscope to the origination of RB2, the message was clear that VR and AR are ways to experience the real world in a controlled environment and, from those interactions, one may be better prepared for the real world, where dangers lurk.
“Today, when a firefighter takes command of an incident, an initial thought may be, ‘Now what do I do?’ As a volunteer firefighter in rural Colorado, I know firsthand the best way to prepare is to train constantly. But it is difficult to get a 360° experience of what one may encounter on any scene. With the emergence of VR technologies, the firefighter will be able to safely challenge him or herself to handle scenarios involving dangerous weather conditions, difficult water source locations, compromised structures, and shifting smoke. This technology will help firefighters hone their skills in making split-second decisions in a controlled environment. I am thrilled that FirstNet is raising the banner of innovation and dreaming about the next iterations of VR and AR for learning.” – Ed Mills
Imagine a situation where an AR HUD provides key information such as latitude, longitude, bearing, wind speed, and altitude, or an AR tool is loaded with hazmat resources so the firefighter can keep eyes on the scene and simultaneously learn the exposures and risks of the response.
FirstNet, an independent entity working to deploy a nationwide wireless broadband network for public safety, is “thinking outside of the box” to help responders leverage technology that is common to the general public and an obvious tool to help refine skills as well as provide vital information during operations.
FirstNet envisions an applications ecosystem where innovative applications are conceived, developed, tested, and made available to first responders to improve training and operations. FirstNet recently dedicated an innovation and test laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, that is envisioned to bring together public safety personnel and technology developers to explore and try new technologies, such as VR and AR.
Commercial and governmental investments in VR and AR technologies are rapidly increasing as more companies and agencies see the potential in these technologies. Steady development of new VR and AR systems, which are becoming more mainstream as costs come down, is transforming experiential learning. In addition, there is the potential to eventually migrate use of AR technologies from firefighter training to use in actual firefighter operations.
First responders across the country will benefit by using next-generation tools that a wireless network with spectrum capacity dedicated to public safety can offer; this capacity is what FirstNet will bring. Key to making this all come together is collaboration between public safety agencies at the federal, tribal, state, and local level as well as public-private partnerships.
The State of Colorado Governor’s Office of Information Technology and FirstNet wish to thank the Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association and Executive Director Garry Briese for their vision and the opportunity to explore and share the potential for these fascinating and exciting technologies at their Fire Leadership Challenge 2016.
To learn more and get involved, visit FirstNet.gov or reach out to your SPOC.
Ed Mills is the Outreach and Education Manager for FirstNet Colorado.
Mark Golaszewski is the Director of Applications for FirstNet.