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Why Simulation is Key for Maintaining Fire Incident Preparedness
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Why Simulation is Key for Maintaining Fire Incident Preparedness

By Martijn Boosman Dr. Katherine Lamb and Ivo Verhoef | Fire Protection Engineering

Ongoing improvements in fire protection and fire safety engineering have drastically reduced the number of fire-related injuries and fatalities. Although this is good news, this development has led to an unforeseen effect: because fire incidents are less frequent, fire officers are gaining less operational experience. This increases the risk of "skill fade” for fire service operational and incident command capabilities. Simulation can provide an effective way to tackle this problem.

The decrease in serious fire incidents becomes apparent when you look at the statistics. In England, for instance, the number of fire fatalities in 2013 to 2014 was 39% lower than in 2003 to 2004. And the rate of hospitalized, non-fatal fire casualties dropped 55% between 2003 and 2013. In the same period, fire and rescue authorities attended 48% fewer fire incidents, and 24% fewer road traffic collisions.1,2

Image used with permission of XVR Simulation.

Simulation is Nothing New

Of course, simulation—or as the definition says: ‘the [purposeful] imitation of the operation of a real world process or system over time‘3—has already been in use to train emergency services personnel for decades. The value of simulation for training purposes lies in its ability to have trainees experience incident situations in a safe, contained, comfortable, repeatable, controllable, and measurable environment.

Within the UK Fire & Rescue Services, simulation is routinely used during the education and development of incident commanders, as it provides an appropriate tool to train people in technical and practical skill acquisition, and practical applications of these new competencies.4

In particular, it can be used to:

  1. Help trainees understand command and control decision-making concepts by experience;
  2. Acquire practical knowledge in a relatively short timeframe;
  3. Practice decision making in critical situations;
  4. Experience situations that rarely occur in real life.

Originally, most applications of simulation in training emergency personnel were so-called live simulations. This includes building a physical environment in which an incident scenario is played out to create incident scenarios. In the late 1990s, virtual reality simulations reached a level of sophistication that made them suitable for emergency services training. Rapid developments in game technology simulated the application of virtual reality simulation for non-entertainment purposes.

Benefits of Virtual Reality

Computer simulations such as "computational fluid dynamics” simulators are aimed at accurately representing calculated physics-based processes. Virtual reality simulations are 3D virtual environments in which the user can move around while being confronted with a real-time visualization of all visual and auditory aspects of an incident. Having to be "real-time,” 3D virtual reality simulations tend to have a lower degree of realism (or fidelity) than before-mentioned computer simulations.

Virtual reality simulations are generally used for training under circumstances that would be too costly, too complex or too dangerous to recreate in real life. The main benefits of computer simulation compared to live simulation are cost effectiveness, flexibility, and the ability to create large scale, complicated, and repeatable events. Because it requires less staff training and eliminates the need to build physical training environments, virtual reality is cost effective. It is flexible because instructors can easily build an enormous variety of incident scenarios by picking and combining different environments and objects from a database. But most importantly, modern simulation software allows instructors to create events in a large virtual environment that would be extremely hard to recreate in live simulation– for instance, a large motorway accident or a rapidly spreading fire in a chemical plant. An additional benefit is the ability to replay scenarios for evaluation purposes for which there would be a need to set up dozens of cameras in a live simulation setting.

Image used with permission of XVR Simulation.

Virtual reality exercise support can also be combined with live exercises running in the indoor training centers to create a "hybrid training” approach. In hybrid training, the commanding officers have to command crews operating in the real training area as well as virtual crews operating in one or more virtual incidents. The advantage of the hybrid approach is that the size of the scenario and, as a result, the span of control for the participants can go beyond the limits of the live training location by simply adding one or more virtual incident locations.

State-Of-The-Art Training Centres

In June 2014, the first of two state-of-the-art training centres opened in London, one in Beckton (East London) and one in Harrow (West London). The facilities feature a 3,200 square-meter indoor center, which includes both a training building in which crews can experience live fires and a purpose-built Urban Search and Rescue training building, which allows crews to train a wide variety of rescue operations. One of the facility’s stand-out features is the extensive application of virtual reality.

The main application of virtual reality is the Incident Command Simulation Suite, which consists of four ‘pods,’ small rooms featuring a large, floor-to-ceiling video screen, audio and fully functional replicas of standardissue London Fire Brigade communication equipment. During team exercises, the trainees in the pods each experience a joint simulation scenario from their own point of view. To achieve additional immersion, senior fire officers can train in an exact replica of a London Fire Brigade Incident Command Unit, in which simulation images can be displayed on a large monitor.

Developing Decision-Making Skills

Virtual reality will never fully replace real life simulation, nor should it. However, if the scenarios created are realistic, achievable, and manageable given a candidate’s current level of command skill, expertise, and—importantly—appropriateness to the role, the maximum benefit can be achieved. Crucial competencies, including communication skills, usage of resources and information, and command strategy, are needed to resolve both simulated and actual incidents.

Facilitators have registered remarkable results in the assessment of incident command competencies by integrating virtual reality simulation into a training and assessment methodology of their creation, called the Introspect model.4 In their 2014 research paper ‘Incident Command Training: The Introspect Model,’ Lamb and Davies argue that virtual reality simulation provides an effective framework to develop these cognitive decisionmaking skills in incident command.

Within this framework, candidates are assessed on their ability to make the ‘right’ dynamic decision based on their own knowledge and evaluation of the incident rather than learning how to apply a scripted list of incident decisions that may not fit the particular incident. It establishes a level of assurance by providing a robust assessment and training methodology. This ensures that organizations are able to appoint, train, and assess their incident commanders. They can also be comfortable in their knowledge that during crisis situations, ‘They have the right person making the right decisions, at the right time, for the right reasons.’ To date, this process has been adopted as best practice by many UK fire service organizations.

Image used with permission of XVR Simulation.

The Merits of Fidelity

What makes an effective virtual reality simulation? A common focus point is fidelity: how faithful and accurate is the simulation in its reproduction of reality. Increased fidelity can be achieved in several ways. For instance, it improves visual projection technology. In recent years, interesting developments in this area have been the introduction of HD-video, and virtual reality goggles such as the Oculus Rift. Another way of achieving fidelity is to utilize the increased processing power of computer hardware to create more realistic virtual scenarios. For instance, the engineering community can add value by using computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to simulate lifelike behavior of smoke, or building virtual replicas of real geographical environments by using geospatial (GIS) data.

Additionally, the available research and simulation models can be used to increase the fidelity of virtual reality simulation. A good example of the latter is the International Wildfire Simulation Project, initiated by the ECASC (Ecole d’Application de Securite Civile) College in the South of France.

While it might seem attractive to implement these innovations as soon as possible in all simulation-based training programs, one should always remain critical and consider whether a new technology actually leads to a more effective training tool. A good example is the development of an advanced wildfire training simulator for ECASC. The original idea to create this simulator was to combine the existing XVR simulation platform5 with the existing wildfire behavior simulator FARSITE.6 From a realism point of view, the combination was ideal.

However, FARSITE lacked a key element required in training as it did not include a real-time response to sudden decisions made by the student. After due consideration, the decision was made to create a simplified "for training only” computer simulation "Ignis,” which provides adequate realism for training but should not be used for operational preparedness. Although maximizing fidelity is an important objective for simulation-based training, achieving immersion for the participants is also important. And immersion — experiencing a sense of realism and involvement in a simulation — depends, in a large part, on the role of the instructor.

Creativity, Gut Feeling, And Experience

A common saying among emergency services instructors is: ‘there is no single truth in incident command.’ In other words, there often is more than one solution to a problem. In response to operational situations, incident commanders rely on recognized prime decision making, or pattern matching to resolve an incident.7 The experiences of the incident commander, from both practical incident exposure and training events using simulation or technical knowledge of operating procedures, are all utilized during the dynamic decision-making process.

The incident commander tests and discards each option instantaneously before establishing the ‘best fit’ or the most plausible solution to resolve the incident. The use of simulation provides the incident commander with limitless opportunities to build experience, and train their recognition-primed, decision-making process to effectively use creativity and intuition to make split-second decisions under pressure.

Image used with permission of XVR Simulation.

Virtual reality simulation offers excellent opportunities to focus on all these elements, provided the instructor can use the simulation effectively to guide the students through an incident scenario. Simulation can be highly realistic when you use well-developed scenarios. By putting the trainees in an interactive environment where their actions directly influence the outcome of events, they are confronted with all the pressures of an actual incident. This creates a powerful immersive effect, which stimulates trainees to use their creativity and gut feeling to make decisions in an incident scenario. Because trainees actually experience the scenario rather than learn the theory, simulation is demonstrably better in training Incident Command Decision Making than classroom-based teaching.8

Off-the-Shelf, Web-Based Simulation

It is likely that the ongoing developments in fire safety engineering will lead to a continuing decrease of operational fire incidents in the future. This also means that maintaining sufficient operational experience and incident preparedness among fire officers will become an increasingly urgent issue. One effective way to tackle this issue is to improve the accessibility of simulation technology. In the coming years, increasing availability of web-based, off-the-shelf simulation software will meet the need for flexible, cost-effective training solutions. With a continuous increase in computer power, it will also be key to combine virtual simulation training with the ongoing improvements in fire protection and fire safety simulation to achieve the highest possible fidelity for students.

Tackling the Issue of Skill Fade

Rather than one type of simulation replacing another, real life and virtual reality simulation will continue to be used side-by-side for training fire officers and other incident responders. They are complementary disciplines that offer specific benefits for training specific skills and capabilities. Virtual reality has proven itself as a particularly useful tool to counter the increasing risk of skill fade among incident commanders. Its ability to let trainees experience and act in large-scale, complex events, as well as its flexibility and cost effectiveness, makes virtual reality a crucial tool to achieve and maintain sufficient fire incident preparedness.

Martijn Boosman is with XVR Simulation, Dr. Katherine Lamb is with the Oxfordshire Fire & Rescue Service and Ivo Verhoef is with XVR Simulation. Images used with permission of XVR Simulation.


  1. Fire Statistics Monitor: England April 2013 to March 2014, Department for Communities and Local Government.
  2. Sir Ken Knight CBE QFSM FIFireE "Facing the Future: Findings from the review of efficiencies and operations in fire and rescue authorities in England,” (2013).
  3. Oxford English Dictionary.
  4. Lamb, K.J., Davies, J., Bowley, R., Williams, J.P. "Incident Command Training: The Introspect Model. International Journal of Emergency Services.” (2014), Vol. 3, No. 2, pp131-143.
  7. Klein G.A., Naturalistic decision making. Human Factors. (2008), Vol. 50, No. 3, pp456-460.
  8. Hall, Kurt.,Effect Sim on Incident Command Trf Dissertation 3414910.

Image used with permission of XVR Simulation.

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