Fire simulator vehicle puts Texas trainees in hot seat

Battalion Chief Don Groves expected the simulator to provide experience that could otherwise only be gained in the field

By Matt Ledesma
The Times Record News

WICHITA FALLS, Texas — Firefighters are often called to respond to life and death situations without much more than the equipment and training they're provided.

The Texas Engineering Extension Service hopes to give those emergency responders a leg up in those situations with the help of a state-of-the-art driving simulator. Members of the Wichita Falls Fire Department got a taste of that training this week through a demo of the service.

Battalion Chief Don Groves, who oversees the department's training, expected the simulator to provide experience that could otherwise only be gained in the field.

"I think what we expect is for them to keep their head on a swivel," Groves said. "We want them to have situational awareness of what's going on around them, and not just be focused on what's in front of them.

The simulator is owned and operated by Texas Engineering Extension Service and is a part of Texas A&M University's Public Safety Training System. Instructor Bobby Averitt said the simulator was made available by a funded grant for a statewide tour. "Our job is to go around the state to the different agencies and provide this free service," Averitt said. "We want to try to make their job a little bit safer. We're trying to show them a better way to dotheir job safer and faster."

Averitt said about 80 requests have already been submitted to use the simulator, with Wichita Falls hoping to get a full course load of training sometime next year.

The MPRI FireSim has the ability to put its trainee in the drivers seat of more than 30 different vehicles, Averitt said. Those variations multiply further with more than 50 scenarios that mimic the real-life emergency situations firefighters respond to every day.

"It's easier for us to come in here and practice on the simulator than it is to go out and actually have to drive out in traffic to learn new things,"

Averitt said. "If theycrash in here, it's a lot less expensive for everyone involved. A person can come in here, learn the basics and maybe even correct some old bad habits."

The driver's seat, housed inside a large trailer, is surrounded by three high-definition screens that depict the lifelike scenarios. Several other smaller screens show the various control panels of the d if ferent v ehicles t hat also correspond with an actual steering wheel, gas pedal and brake.

The steering wheel vibrates and provides a dose of reality when the simulated vehicle hits, crashes or collides with something in the virtual world.

The driver also is subjected to scenarios that depict heavy vehicle and pedestrian traffic, bad weather, downtown and neighborhood streets. An instructor sits at a different control panel monitoring, and at times, even manipulates the scenarios to provide for an ever more realistic experience.

Trainees can then view a recording of their session and discuss with the instructor their strengths and weaknesses during the simulation.

Groves said the feedback from those who experienced the simulator for thefirst timewas overwhelmingly positive.

"They like it, and we're hoping to get a full set of classes going after we apply for the training," Groves said. "Right now, we're just getting ourselves familiar with equipment."

Copyright 2011 Wichita Falls Times Record News
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