Going virtual: Inside 1 fire department’s journey into immersive learning

California’s Cosumnes Fire Department shares its experience incorporating virtual reality into recruit training


By Kirk McKinzie, Julie Rider and Justin Quarisa

In the beginning, there was View-Master.

As a child in the 70s, the View-Master was a must-have toy, offering 3D full-color pictures featuring scenes from your favorite superhero show, Disney movie or TV hits, like Happy Days or Emergency! Who knew then that such innovation, creativity and advancing technology would bring the fire service into a new age – the age of virtual reality?

For one department, the journey into age of virtual reality offered firefighters the unique opportunity to be on the forefront of high-tech training.

Interest in advanced technology

In 2015, virtual reality (VR) was expanding outside of gaming platforms and into the arena of immersive learning. This type of learning was gaining traction in the military, safety, medical and manufacturing industries, and providing companies innovative ways to train staff members in real-world, fully interactive practice scenarios.

From “toy” to tool, simple plastic viewers (and even cardboard) provide an adjunct for public education and first responder training in a clean, safe and cost-effective manner.
From “toy” to tool, simple plastic viewers (and even cardboard) provide an adjunct for public education and first responder training in a clean, safe and cost-effective manner. (Photo/Consumnes CSD)

Kirk McKinzie, a fire captain (ret.) with the Cosumnes Fire Department (CFD) in California, recognized the need to broaden the fire department’s use of advancing technologies. To learn more, McKinzie attended an orientation of the California Exercise Simulation Center (CESC) in Sacramento. The content had been sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate on Enhanced Dynamic Geo-Social Environment (EDGE), a virtual training program for first responders to interact with the technology. EDGE (now available open source) is a multiplayer, scalable online environment that allows first responders – within a single agency or a cross-agency jurisdiction and discipline – to train in coordinated critical incident response.

As you can imagine, immersive learning platforms were relatively costly, requiring significant computer power and staff resources to control and operate the various training scenarios.

McKinzie was later invited by Virtual Heroes (an industry leader in Department of Defense and first responder modeling and simulations) to the Game Developers Conference. The opportunity provided introductions to various enterprise partners.

Critical and generous donations from GoPro, Inc., in the form of 360 video cameras, pictured with air-cooled enclosures, for acquired structure live burns. The videos focused on fire behavior, forceable entry, ventilation, and size-up, each evaluated in synchronized VR training.
Critical and generous donations from GoPro, Inc., in the form of 360 video cameras, pictured with air-cooled enclosures, for acquired structure live burns. The videos focused on fire behavior, forceable entry, ventilation, and size-up, each evaluated in synchronized VR training. (Photo/Consumnes CSD)

Building a program – with a little help from friends

CFD had a shared desire to advance into a contemporary learning style, and Captain McKinzie initiated those efforts by fostering relationships with technology teams from around the world who generously offered collaborative support. Several teams donated services and supplies, including gaming computers, heads-up displays (HUDs), and 360-degree spherical cameras, enabling the beginning of the department’s immersive learning journey.

Identifying the need for additional help, McKinzie invited CFD Firefighter Justin Quarisa to assist in organizing a technology team, together creating a momentum to integrate technology in training. With immersive learning as a relatively new concept, the team worked to generate department wide buy-in, introducing the use of technology as a training adjunct to hands-on training and not replacing it with a “video game.” Immersive learning was merely another tool in the toolbox.

Persistence paid off when CFD captured and edited its first 360-degree video, Pull to the Right for Sirens and Lights. The video was released as a public education video.

Although the CFD’s video team, D Shift Production, had a lot of experience with traditional videos, 360-degree videos brought new challenges to light. Capturing and editing 360-degree video required significant time and lightning-fast computer speed.

A physics-based exterior fire in Flaim Trainer has spread to the adjacent structure. With more than 40 scenarios available, the Trainer system provides an ever-expanding curriculum set.
A physics-based exterior fire in Flaim Trainer has spread to the adjacent structure. With more than 40 scenarios available, the Trainer system provides an ever-expanding curriculum set. (Photo/Consumnes CSD)

Reality in Virtual Reality (RiVR), along with long-term partners W.S. Darley, stepped in to assist with hardware, software and editing services. The groups teamed up to capture hours of videos, complete editing, and develop multiple training videos.

Leveling up academy training

With RiVR and Darley’s help, CFD brought virtual reality to the 2019-01 Academy Recruits. Specifically, RiVR provided CFD with a complete system called “Classroom in a Box.” This tool utilizes a tablet and router to link headsets. The platform allowed our lead instructor, Quarisa, to easily control each headset and the video recruits are watching. (Note: An optional addition is the “Capture Kit,” complete with a camera, memory cards, and accessories.) Each VR simulation provided the participant an “exposure” to a super-heated fire within the comfort and safety of the classroom while wearing the Pico Interactive headset.

Firefighter Justin Quarisa has been “dispatched” to a multi-vehicle collision involving flammable liquids and has arrived to conduct a size-up and provide a report on conditions, complete with haptics nozzle and synchronized heat vest. Fig 5: The vehicle collision involving fire allows firefighters to practice hose handling and suppressant application. Officers gain command, control, strategies, and tactical muscle memory in an immersive environment.
Firefighter Justin Quarisa has been “dispatched” to a multi-vehicle collision involving flammable liquids and has arrived to conduct a size-up and provide a report on conditions, complete with haptics nozzle and synchronized heat vest. Fig 5: The vehicle collision involving fire allows firefighters to practice hose handling and suppressant application. Officers gain command, control, strategies, and tactical muscle memory in an immersive environment. (Photo/Consumnes CSD)

CFD focused its VR learning objectives on fire behavior/dynamics, ventilation, forcible entry, flow-path and vent-enter-isolate-search (VEIS) practices. The recruits visited four training stations throughout the day:

  1. Virtual Reality
  2. Palmer Dollhouse
  3. Reading Smoke
  4. Flash Can

Every station was critical in the learning process. They complemented each other, but one station was no better than the other. However, taking a recruit with no fire service experience and giving them the VR, Palmer Dollhouse and Reading Smoke stations before the Flash Can significantly reduced their anxiety and increased the ability for them to listen and retain the information. Further, the VR experience greatly enhanced the experience in the Flash Can live-fire training. When the recruits were asked what environment provided the best fire behavior education, over 80% indicated a 360 video.

Captain Julie Rider promoted a media and immersive learning education day for our community stakeholders and local news affiliates from the Sacramento area. First, we exposed the media to a live-fire training demonstration so they could experience first-hand the unique communication challenges in a loud, hot fire environment, with limited visibility. Next, they were able to cool off, sit back and relax while wearing a VR headset and experience how virtual reality is currently bridging the gap between classroom and hands-on training by creating a more impactful learning environment without placing firefighters in dangerous training situations preemptively.

Bonus: Fire investigation training tools

To continue the momentum after training the recruits with Classroom in a Box, the team at RiVR offered the use of a system for fire investigation training. The group is a world leader in converting the environment – any environment – into a life-like 3D experience. Using Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) to capture millions of measurements (in this case, post-suppression of an intentional fire), the team creates the base data for investigation training scenarios. The LiDAR data, coupled with thousands of HD images, are blended using a process known as photogrammetry. This is repeated for each object in the burn cubicle until the full scene is meticulously recreated.

Students can then enter the space, take virtual images of areas of interest, put evidence markers in the 3D space, submit notes, and propose a thesis on where a fire first started and how it progressed. The advancing VR ecosystem allows for new versions of the system to be deployed with wireless technology.

Ongoing high-tech opportunities

Additional support for the immersive learning program at CFD has recently been supplied by renewed efforts by W.S. Darley, a proponent of next-gen tech through Smart Firefighting. W.S. Darley is the U.S. supplier for RiVR and FLAIM Systems, which offered loaner “Extinguisher” and “Trainer” (Fig. 3) systems, manufactured in Australia.

Instructors may choose various ignition locations and evaluate users' command and control communications relevant to national, regional, and district guidelines and protocols.
Instructors may choose various ignition locations and evaluate users' command and control communications relevant to national, regional, and district guidelines and protocols. (Photo/Consumnes CSD)

FLAIM Extinguisher provides a lightweight and lean VR experience for providing public education and staff training on correct fire extinguisher selection and use (PASS: Pull the pin, Aim nozzle, Squeeze handle, and Sweep agent practice). The Trainer immersive learning platform offers firefighters of all ranks and experience levels (Fig.4) practical, hands-on training with a high efficacy system for ever-expanding use cases (currently with more than 40 scenarios). Flaim Trainer and Extinguisher (Fig. 5) are designed and built by Dr. James Mullins, a veteran third-generation firefighter and robotics professor.

The next asset planned for CFD is the installation of a command training simulator. In partnership with the DHS Science and Technology Directorate and in collaboration with the University of Central Florida Institute for Simulation & Training, North Star Simulations is staged to install the competency-based fire scene command training system.

Select your tool – and go!

Operations staff from probationary firefighters to senior commanders can practice command and control scenarios in “bread and butter” residential structures as well as multi-story high life hazard events.
Operations staff from probationary firefighters to senior commanders can practice command and control scenarios in “bread and butter” residential structures as well as multi-story high life hazard events. (Photo/Consumnes CSD)

The ability to systematically practice decision-making inside an active fire scene environment has historically been limited to the 24/7 physical world. That limitation is compounded by the fact that fewer fires are occurring today compared to prior decades, yet based on U.S. Fire Administration data (2009-2018), fire deaths are up more than 20%.

The use of scenario-based simulation (Fig. 6) can fundamentally address the problem of lack of command experience. Simulated environments are critical contemporary tools that are now being utilized by first responders. For Cosumnes, the Incident Command Simulator’s pending installation will allow contemporary competency data and command training, including high-risk, low-frequency events (Fig. 7).

Fire service organizations seeking new advancements in technology are recommended to take one project on at a time. Departments are encouraged to choose a “tool” from the Immersive Learning Toolbox, utilize it, and assist with advancing it, sharing information along the way. Public/private partnerships are crucial to advancing technology faster. The traditional hands-on approach combined with critically placed technology will create a safer working environment and save more lives along the way.

About the authors

Captain (Ret.) Kirk McKinzie is a 32-year fire service veteran and holds more than 30 certificates from the California State Fire Marshal’s office, with more than 10,000 hours of fire and life safety training and education. He is an adjunct professor with the University of Cincinnati on Next Gen tech, an international speaker and strategic SMART technologist. 

Captain Julie Rider is a 22-year career firefighter. She is a public information officer and content creator for the Cosumnes Fire Department’s social media platforms and is passionate about providing opportunities and strategies for recruiting women into the fire service. Rider is an active member of the Sacramento Regional Fire Services Diversity Committee, bringing fresh perspective and new ideas to the table.

Justin Quarisa has 16 years of fire and EMS experience, currently serving as a firefighter paramedic for the Cosumnes CSD Fire Department in California. He is actively engaged in training and educating current and future firefighters.

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