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How digital tools can make fire training safer

Use simulation to provide a realistic firefighting experience without the risks of injury and exposure to fireground toxins

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Digital simulation technology gives firefighters realistic scenarios without exposing them to added danger from toxins.


Live fire training is the backbone of the training most fire departments employ to prepare their personnel for the physical hazards (e.g., heat, smoke, decreased visibility) and the mental challenges (e.g., lack of visibility, difficulty communicating and staying in contact with team members) of interior structural firefighting.

But can fire departments continue to train as they have in the past while the way they do business on the street has changed dramatically?

Continuing use of SCBA while in the hazard area, gross decontamination of all personnel who were in the hazard area and cleaner engines are just a few of the measures being undertaken to reduce firefighter exposure to those hazards. But what about fire training exercises, especially live fire training exercises?

It’s imperative that we discontinue needlessly exposing firefighters and instructors to the toxic materials and carcinogens contained in the smoke and soot produced by the burning of Class A materials.

Research is showing us that exposing students and instructors to high interior temperatures during live fire training has physiological consequences as well. Instructors typically work inside the burn building or modular burn unit two or three times more often during a training session than the students, so reducing their exposure to both smoke and heat is in their best interests.

A new approach to an ongoing need

“What got you here won’t get you there” is the one of the mantras from noted motivational speaker, John Maxwell, and it’s powerful in its simplicity. Another good piece of advice comes from the late Stephen Covey, author of the widely popular book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” in which Covey wrote, “Begin with the end in mind.”

Rather than using live fire training as the tool to develop the firefighter’s knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) necessary to be a safe, effective and efficient firefighter, what if the live fire exercise was the “final exam” used to ensure that the firefighter had mastered those KSAs – the end we have in mind?

Firefighter live fire training simulators

One of the big pushes has been the development of fire training simulators that don’t use live fire that involves the burning of Class A combustibles like straw and wooden pallets. These increasingly sophisticated training buildings have burn simulators – powered with natural gas or propane – that provide training scenarios that act just like fire (although the look is different) and takes the same effort (firefighters advancing hose lines and properly directing fire streams) to extinguish.

Training firefighters in live fire exercises is necessary because the reality is that encountering a live fire creates a completely different physical and emotional response. A firefighter’s heart rate and respiratory rate increases, their bloodstream is flooded with adrenaline, and the brain starts increasing blood flow to the large muscle groups of the legs, arms and back that are engaging in this hard work. The body’s fight, flight or freeze program has been initiated.

Yet at the time the brain needs the most oxygen to make good decisions with the information presented, that activation of those three F’s” decreases the brain’s ability to process new information. And most psychologists will tell you that’s where poor decision-making begins.

Digital training tools

But through realistic fire training using digital fire training simulators, firefighters can develop the muscle memory and mental memory necessary to be successful – without the exposure to extreme heat and to soot and other chemicals, chemical compounds and carcinogens.

That training isn’t limited to cleaner burning fires in burn buildings. Digital training has come to the fire service in a big way. Digital simulation technology enables fire departments to put flames and smoke in just about any area without the use of real fire. Using simulation technology, manufacturers have created the ability to project a hologram that looks and acts like a fire.

The student firefighter is equipped with a nozzle that looks and feels just like their TFT or Akron Brass nozzle, except this nozzle is equipped with a laser for a fire stream. And the hose line they’re advancing is weighted to feel just like the 1 ¾-inch hose they’d be dragging into the building.

If the firefighter applies the fire stream correctly, the “fire” goes out and the “smoke” diminishes. If they don’t, the fire and smoke increase accordingly. Connectivity between a non-toxic smoke generator and the fire generator ensures that the scope and magnitude of the smoke and the fire remain consistent with the firefighter’s application of the fire stream.

The technology can replicate not only the fire and the smoke, but also the noise and light pollution that firefighters can encounter during interior firefighting operations. It’s important to train with the same distractions, such as firefighters screaming through their SCBA masks trying to communicate with other firefighters only a few feet away, as well as the flashing red lights and spotlights coming in through the windows from fire apparatus operating outside the building.

Virtual reality training for firefighters

Virtual reality provides another platform for fire departments to deliver firefighter training that’s safer, more effective and more efficient – and at a lower overall cost.

VR creates a safer training environment because regardless of the size, magnitude or complexity of the simulated problem, the trainee is never in any real danger. Nonetheless, the situations are very realistic, and they give trainees the ability to feel the adrenaline rush and learn to manage it without incurring the actual risk.

VR training enables you to take the training to the trainee, not the other way around. If trainees have the appropriate equipment, they can undergo training from any location. Just think of the amount of logistical work that wouldn’t need to take place just to get firefighters to a specific site for training.

Instructors can create visually stimulating and realistic scenarios that are more engaging than traditional classroom learning methods. VR training supports better retention because it’s so realistic. Trainees are likely to forget something they heard, read or even watched on a screen, but because VR training is so realistic, experiences are more likely to stick in the trainees’ minds, and they’ll develop better muscle memory that will last.

VR can help bring down the cost of training in a big way as well. Think of just some of the costs involved with doing one day of NFPA 1403-compliant live fire training on site at an engineered burn structure using gas-fire burn props:

  • Transportation costs getting students and equipment to the site.
  • Cost of getting fire apparatus there and operating them on site.
  • Cost for the proper number of instructors.
  • Cost of fuel for the props.

That list doesn’t include the time and money spent on staff planning necessary to make such a training experience happen.

In the organization where I served for over 26 years, the Chesterfield Fire and EMS Department in Virginia, the department’s take on this was, “Training teaches what Operations does, and Operations does what Training teaches.”

How can you and your fire department make such a strategy work in your organization? Digital training tools may just be the answer for your department.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.