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Technology may improve fire apparatus safety

Driver-training simulators are pricey, but may help firefighters avoid more costly collisions

One of the core responsibilities for any emergency-services organization is the proper training of its personnel for safe over-the-road operation of emergency vehicles. This is especially true for fire and EMS agencies operating large trucks, such as engines, ladders and rescue rigs.

According to data from the International Association of Firefighters and the U.S. Fire Administration, roughly 25 percent of annual firefighter fatalities occur when responding to or returning from alarms.

A comprehensive driver training program and certification process is the key element in dramatically reducing those types of accidents. However, such programs can be burdensome to a department — especially larger organizations — when it comes to time, materials and logistics.

The effects of these constraints have only been exacerbated for many departments in recent years by staffing reductions, fiscal belt-tightening by local governments and increased calls for service. However, emerging technology is offering options to fit the driver training needs for fire and EMS departments of all sizes: emergency vehicle driving simulators.

Use in other industries
A 2007 article in Clinical Neurosurgery showed that the increased use of flight simulators by U.S. airlines for the initial training and refresher training of pilots has been largely credited with the dramatic reduction in airline crashes and near-misses resulting from pilot error.

Those simulators enabled instructors to expose their students not only to a far larger number of potential accident scenarios that require pilot intervention, but also to specific challenges, such as those scenarios identified as the cause of fatal crashes.

Emergency driving simulators can provide the same functionality to emergency vehicle driving instructors. For example, a jurisdiction can include those scenarios faced by all departments — intersections or distracted drivers — as well as those germane to their department, such as off-road driving, tender operation or navigating narrow rural roads.

Using the following force field analysis, let’s look at the up- and down-sides of driving simulators’ value to a department’s operations.

Driving forces

  • Increased public scrutiny of emergency vehicle operations via social media, such as Twitter or YouTube increase potential for poor driving behaviors or crashes becoming public
  • Many local governments are self-insured and reduction of motor vehicle related accidents is a core risk reduction strategy for those jurisdictions.
  • Staffing reductions make it more difficult to provide service coverage for a unit committed to over-the-road (OTR)
  • Rising cost of fuel for vehicle operation to conduct OTR training
  • Incoming personnel have less experience driving large vehicles — and fire apparatus keeps getting bigger — than their predecessors and require more behind-the-wheel training to attain driving competency
  • Simulators provides the instructor with capability to expose students to wide variety and number of driving scenarios that require driver action to avoid an accident and for the instructor to reinforce good driving habits

Resistive forces

  • Initial cost for purchase of simulators is large and beyond the financial means of many departments
  • Dedicated facility and space to house a simulator if it is a fixed stationary unit
  • Logistical support for the simulator if the unit is mobile or portable
  • Travel time and out-of-service time for personnel to attend simulator training using stationary simulators

Currently, there are three types of emergency vehicle driving simulators on the market: installed stationary simulators, mobile trailer mounted simulators, and portable simulators.

Stationary (or fixed facility) simulators
Stationary simulators consist of installed equipment designed to replicate the interior of an emergency vehicle cab. These units can include realistic simulators for a wide range of vehicles, including pumper trucks, tower trucks, tillers, aerial trucks, tractor-drawn ladder trucks, ambulances.

Manufacturers such as FAAC, Inc and Simulation Technology use real components and gauges to replicate as closely as possible the student’s simulator experiences with that of real on-the-road driving.

Some of the components of a stationary simulator are:

  • Full power train, including engine, transmission and axle ratio
  • Suspension system that includes shock absorbers, springs and tire effects
  • Accurate vehicle brakes
  • Replication of steering wheel feel and tendencies
  • Functional and accurately reproduced cab compartment controls
  • Integrated computer systems can provide the student with opportunities to respond to the environment and operator maneuvers, such as speed, road friction, wind and driver inputs. The computer’s capabilities include:
  • Controlling out-the-window visual scenes and vehicle sounds as they relate to driving and student performance
  • Providing situational prompts to the student via the simulator’s dashboard instruments
  • Sensing and responding to student inputs, such as hard braking and over steering
  • Providing realistic interaction between other driving stations networked in the same training scenario
  • Simulator manufacturers incorporate the latest video screen technology to provide the student driver with a combination of front, side and rear views that deliver as much as a 315-degree field of view from the cab

Mobile simulators
Mobile simulators are, in many cases, stationary simulators that have been installed in a trailer, large truck or bus to increase accessibility to the training by enabling the instructor to take the simulator to the students.

Mobile simulators are also an attractive option for those departments that pool their resources to make the purchase or for organizations that apply for funding as a regional entity, such through the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program. The simulators mobility makes it easier to partner organizations to use the simulator because it can come to the students.

Simulator costs can range from $125,000 — for a single fixed-facility setup — to $250,000 for a single mobile simulator setup. Actual costs will vary depending upon the amount of system configuration specified: a generic simulator setup (less expensive) versus a setup configured to an individual department’s apparatus cab (more expensive).

Portable simulators
Portable simulators are very different from their stationary and mobile cousins in that the equipment is designed to work in conjunction with the department’s apparatus.

One example is the Vigil Vanguard System Driver Training Simulator (DTS) developed by Vigil Solutions. The DTS shares an advantage with the mobile simulator — the instructor brings the system to the student, however, the similarities end there.

DTS uses four cameras and integrated GPS to provide real-time and objective feedback to the instructor and student. The four cameras are mounted on the emergency response vehicle and provide recording for three driver views — front facing, left side and right side, and one instructor view of the in-cab environment and the driver.

The cameras continually record and download their data images to the instructor’s notebook computer; later the instructor can review the entire training drive with the student using those four views.

DTS also includes a cache of electronic forms in the notebook computer. This includes the initial driver training or certification testing checklists, which are also integrated with the on-board cameras and GPS.

This feature enables the instructor to bookmark a point in the recording of the training drive. For example, if the driver makes an improper lane change, later when the instructor reviews the recording with the student back at the station he or she can quickly queue up the appropriate section of the video recording along with the exact geographic location where the infraction occurred.

When all is said and done, driving simulators will offer some departments a means to improve driver training, and ultimately, firefighter and civilian safety.

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.