The virtuality reality revolution: Is VR the future of firefighter training?

June 7, 2024

XpertVR Co-Founders Evan Sitler, CEO, and Drew MacNeil, COO, explore the evolution of Firefighter VR Training

What inspired the creation of XpertVR’s firefighter training simulations?

Drew: Before XpertVR, Evan and I were business graduates from Brock University.

The first time we ever got our hands on a VR headset, we set it up and played the available games.

It really clicked for me because it was the first time in a long while I’d seen a crossover between sports and video games, which were two of my passions as a child.

I was very engaged with this technology.

From there, we started realising there were opportunities beyond gaming where VR could have an impact.

Being students ourselves, we had experienced “death by PowerPoint” in lectures, which many students dislike.

We realised there was a potential for VR to enhance training, both at the post-secondary level and in professional skills.

Evan: I’ve been involved in the virtual reality space for eight years and have been running XpertVR for seven years.

On the firefighting side, in 2021, Conestoga College in Ontario approached us for training solutions because their students were in lockdown and couldn’t participate in co-ops or hands-on learning.

The emergency services, particularly police and fire, were heavily affected.

We started building simulations for them and met with industry professionals.

We learned that many firefighters might only get one live training session per year, which is the standard.

Much of their training also involved PowerPoint presentations and 2D images.

We realised we could make this more interactive.

When we showed firefighters how VR was being used at Conestoga, they were excited about implementing it in their departments.

We saw an opportunity to enhance fire service training significantly.

Drew: There was an opportunity gap in soft skills training across the emergency services space, and that’s where we’ve focused our efforts.

Can you walk us through the basics of your VR training simulations?

Evan: The basic functionalities include highly realistic environments that are interactive.

You can open doors, windows, and interact with all the objects within the environment.

The simulations are also customisable, allowing fire departments to design specific scenarios they want to train on.

The system is very accessible; we’ve had people as old as 70 or 80 use it, and they usually pick up the controls within five minutes.

It’s multi-user, so you can train with your team in a completely wireless setup that takes about five minutes to set up, requiring no IT support.

Currently, we have eight different environments, ranging from residential houses to office buildings, diners, and restaurants.

Firefighters can experience various scenarios they might not encounter daily and might not even be possible to train for live.

These include different types of environments, hazardous materials, and fires, providing comprehensive training experiences.

How does VR training differentiate from traditional training?

Drew: One unique feature is the speed of training.

With our VR simulations, firefighters can quickly train in various scenarios without the need to reset physical spaces or travel to different locations.

Everything can be done from a single location, typically the fire station, providing practical training without the need to organise full-day events or bring everyone to one spot, which can be very costly.

Evan Sitler: PwC conducted a great study in the UK about three or four years ago, focusing on soft skills, but its findings are proving relevant to hard skills as well.

We’re planning more research studies specifically for the fire service.

The study found that trainees learn their skills four times faster within the simulation.

This doesn’t mean they only spend 25% of their time training and then have 75% to sit around; it means they can now practise more advanced skills during the extra time.

The study also found that trainees are four times more engaged because they are fully immersed in the headset.

Everything they see, touch, feel, and hear is virtual, creating an interactive learning environment.

Emotionally, trainees in the simulations were found to be 3.75 times more connected to the content.

We’ve observed this particularly with virtual avatars.

While the simulations are highly realistic, they can still look somewhat like a video game.

We had a class where one student went into the basement of our residential house simulation, where there were four victims.

She completely forgot she was in virtual reality and started panicking, unsure of how to rescue them.

She mistakenly thought she was in the garage, searched for the door to get out, but didn’t look for the stairs.

She ran out of air and blacked out, though she was fine after removing the headset.

This incident provided a great learning experience, allowing her training officer to give feedback on managing panic in such scenarios.

How do your VR simulations stay up to date with emerging firefighting challenges?

Drew: In Canada, wildfires have been a significant issue over the past few years.

It’s crucial that firefighters, whether they live in affected areas or are flown in from city locations during emergencies, understand what’s involved.

Our VR simulations allow us to quickly adapt and create new scenarios based on government mandates.

Instead of designing full in-person training courses, we can review new compliances and ensure the simulations are updated to train firefighters in the required skills.

Evan: We’ve been in discussions with the NFPA and IAFF about the regulations they set or recommend for fire departments.

In recent years, they have accepted driving simulators as a way for firefighters to earn credentials.

Now, they are looking at incorporating other firefighting simulations, like those we are developing, to verify certifications.

Currently, most VR training is used for practice rather than final certification tests.

Firefighters still need to participate in live burns, and we recommend continuing live burn training as much as possible.

However, VR allows for weekly or daily practice, helping firefighters to be better prepared for advanced skills and live burn certifications.

What feedback have you received from institutions and individual learners?

Drew: At Conestoga College, after introducing our VR simulations to three consecutive semesters, we’ve observed that every student finishes the hour-and-a-half sessions smiling, excited, and happy – a reaction is quite different from the traditional classroom experience.

They ask lots of questions and teachers have become very creative in using the core functionalities to emphasise points from PowerPoint lessons.

One instructor mentioned that after three VR sessions, his students were the best-prepared he had seen for their first live burn in his 13 years of teaching.

Evan: Outside the academic space, the feedback from the fire service has also been very positive.

San Diego Fire Department recently started working with us after we met them at FDIC and gave them their first demo of our simulations.

They said they are finding the simulations impressive and functional, and they’re keen to integrate them further into their training.

How do you integrate feedback from the industry to refine and improve the VR training simulations?

Evan: We often say we’re the experts in VR, hence the name, but we’re not the experts in firefighting.

Although, some of our developers are becoming quite knowledgeable due to the numerous conversations we’ve had.

We’ve talked to over 1,500 firefighters in the past year, which has taught us a lot.

Regular discussions with Conestoga College, their industry experts, and other professionals inform us on how to build the simulations.

We learn how the smoke should look, what tools are needed, and how to create realistic and useful training scenarios.

Drew: We ensure we consult industry experts, whether from fire stations or educational institutions, before developing new features.

We reverse-engineer the learning outcomes to understand why specific features are necessary and ensure they have the most significant impact on the students’ training experience.

What future developments do you foresee in VR firefighter training technology?

Drew: I think there will be focus on two key areas where training is currently lacking: wildfire training and lithium-ion battery fires.

We aim to roll out comprehensive wildfire training across Canada and eventually worldwide.

Regarding lithium-ion battery fires, we’re addressing how to manage fires in smartphones, household electronics, and electric vehicles.

This includes properly containing the surrounding area and effectively extinguishing the fires to prevent such situations.

Evan: Beyond that, our ultimate vision involves developing a city hub that includes environments like a metropolitan city, suburban areas, wildlife areas, and industrial zones.

In this hub, firefighters can train alone, with their station, or coordinate city-wide training.

Ideally, this will eventually include police, paramedics, and other industries.

We envision a simulation with over 50 people interacting, including dispatchers and first responders, conducting mass casualty training.

Currently, such training requires thousands of volunteers.

Our goal is to make this kind of training readily available at any time.

This article was originally published in the June 2024 issue of Fire & Safety Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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